Chapter Four

'Dear Diary,

Tomorrow it is my birthday! I am to be sixteen and I can finally leave that dreadful school. Melissa and Father have been rather secretive and they will not meet my eye. I suspect they are throwing me a grand party or buying me a large present. Well, I can hope can't I?

Maria'

I left the schoolhouse that summer.

To put it bluntly I was exhilarated to leave that sad dull building and all the teachers and snivelling petty children behind. I had left my mark on that wretched place and I was to be remembered for a long while. I soon realised that I would not be missed as much as I had hoped and Old Riley could breathe a sigh of relief at my departure. But I say good riddance and good luck to him! I never missed him in the slightest. Although I do have to admit that I wept a little saying farewell to Miss Gilding! Melissa cared little that I had left her as well as my childhood behind, as she was becoming quite the young woman herself. Besides, she lived in the same room as I did!

I had been released into the world by uncaring hands. I was young, fiery (literally) and ready to face the world with a pocket full of confidence and was prepared to face any obstacle and climb any mountain.

My father seemed to become happier with me helping him with the farm work. I noticed that his thin lips, torn by a lifetime of hard painful work, would twitch at the ends transforming his face into a beaming smile. He was entirely lit up by my presence, he'd shed his crinkly winter skin and grew into a new glowing body.

Those first few months of adult life were like magic. I rose at the call of the orange-red sunshine, and ate a small breakfast consisting of a sour apple and a glass of milk; I then trudged down to the stable when our old farm horse Donny was kept. I was to groom him and ride him down to the shallow stream where the kingfishers flew. It ran through the bottom of the hills on the outskirts of our small village of Oakhampton and all the way to Margate. On my return I would ride past the sheep field and take their feed from my satchel, the same that I had previously used for schoolbooks.

As well as being a chore, the early rides on Donny were heaven. I loved him with all my heart, my father used to tell me that I was 'Horse Mad'. I don't believe that to be entirely true, I liked other things. None could ever spring to mind when questioned, but, whichever way you looked at, worded or point-blanked it, Donny was the best thing to happen to me since my birth. Even when he threw me over hedges, into rivers or the occasional fence, my love was unconditional.

Sometimes I would delay my other duties just so that I could ride Donny for a few more hours. My father wouldn't miss me but when I returned home, every time he would say:

'You must be careful out there alone my darling. That old beast could kill you easy!'

There is something very strange about the love of a brute, you either have it, or you don't. Donny had been on this earth a whole lot longer than I had and he knew me well. I'd gained his trust over the years and we possessed a strong bond. He was a huge beast, of seventeen hands or so, a beautiful chestnut coloured coat and gorgeous black flowing mane and tail. A pure white blaze ran up his nose and parted at the eyes to form a diamond on his forehead. This feature was a favourite of mine. The amount of times that the old sod threw me off over the years was by all means, uncountable. But each time I fell, I gained a little more experience and gradually began to tumble into the dirt less and less, until no more. I believe that, even after a long life, his death was the most heart wrenching time I have ever had the misfortune of experiencing.

It was the middle of July, the prime of summer, when father and I began to notice that Donny was becoming stiff and slow. At first we put it down to mere age, but soon enough he was on the verge of death.

I discovered him, just days later, lying upon the sweet-smelling straw in his cosy little shed, breathing sharply and huffing. I immediately called my father, and my father immediately called the vet, Timothy I believe. We stood in the night discussing what to do with the old cob. Timothy told us that he would never stand again and that twenty-five years was a 'good age' for a horse of his stature.

My father and Timothy decided what should be done. I was assured that Donny would feel no pain of any sort. I was heartbroken. I knew how horses were put down. I had to; I'd grown up among them.

'I know you will let this animal die with dignity' the vet's voice was awkwardly loud in the peacefulness and soreness of the situation. With that he tipped his hat and left, without another word.

At Timothy's departure my father eyes brimmed with tears. I had never seen him cry before, and it made me feel uneasy and vulnerable. At least, I thought, he felt something for my Donny.

My father left me standing in the darkness with the soft light of a lantern in Donny's stable. He had gone to fetch his rifle. I dared not say a word. He returned just minutes later, wiping his eyes of tears and puffing his chest. I pleaded silently to all that was great to save my horse and let him not meet this sort of end.

I knew that no matter how hard I begged and cried, I knew that Donny would have to die, one way or another. The way he died gave him final dignity. God knows that I didn't want him to, but also I did not want him to suffer.

My father clicked his rifle before entering the stable, as not to spook Donny before the end. 'It would be cruel' he told me softly, holding me tight in his arms. 'It will be alright'

I entered the stable with my father to say my last farewell to Donny, he looked at me with his huge gorgeous eyes, and they were full of warmth and trust. So much pain filled my heart at that moment, I felt as if I were betraying him, a loyal friend. I couldn't contain my emotions, I couldn't wall them up, I couldn't let him die. Tears spilled over my eyelids and down my cheeks. I tried to fight myself, but they were too strong, I did not want to make him anxious and worried in his last moments. But still they took over me and dragged me over to poor old Donny. I fell to my knees and wrapped my arms around his neck and sobbed quietly into his soft brown coat. I could feel his heart beating, bom-bom bom-bom bom-bom, and memories of Thomas's death flooded my mind.

I was overwhelmed by sorrow but the warmth from Donny's dying body comforted me in a way that only a true friend could. The poor old beast was entering his last moments but he was in unbeknownst, I was slightly comforted by that pleasant thought. However I was still haunted by the fact that I knew what would come next, I didn't want it, but I also didn't want Donny to suffer any more.

My father now stood in the corner of the stable, rifle in one hand, the other fingering the oats that lay uneaten in the bottom of the manger. His impatience, as I saw it, was insulting to me and anger began to boil in my soul, but this was Donny's time and I did not have the heart to steal it away from him.

The old cob lifted his giant head and rested it upon mine; I lay my hand on his mane and stroked it back towards his withers. I shifted gently to one side and he raised his head off of mine. I lay against his chest listening to that beating heart, and caressed him, I wanted to touch every last bit of him (apart from his private parts) before he passed. I stretched my arm and felt all the way from his muzzle, up the beautiful diamond blaze, down his neck, across his curved back and all the way down to the ends of his lovely black tail.

As I lay next to him on the soft straw, I recited a poem that my mother had taught me. I whispered the sweet words to him, and his ears pricked forwards, he was listening to my shallow tone and I swear he could feel the lump in my throat as much as I could. The final words 'Sleep my love, be forever peaceful' were spoken and tears yet again pricked at my eyes. Donny breathed hot air onto my back, sending shivers up my spine. Such sensation had never been felt before. I gave him a final embrace.

Quite satisfied, I leant my forehead to his and gazed into his deep brown eyes 'I'll be alright now Maria', they said. I gave him a kiss at the heart of the diamond and stood up. Our gazes met for the final time and I received a last look of love from Donny. I then left the cosiness and warmth of his stable.

I hurried away from my father, away from Donny; I didn't want to hear the shot. I didn't want to hear my horse's last whinnies and cries. He would call for me, but I would never come, I could never come. I ran up the dirt pathway to the farmhouse, covering my ears. I turned over my shoulder for a half-second, but still I met the wall with a thud and sank to my knees in the cold wet earth. I crumpled into a heap, sobbing uncontrollably with my head against the stone.

I finally heard the sound I'd been dreading. It was over. I had lost a lifelong friend, the only true friend I'd ever had on this god-forsaken earth.

I had met death before, but not in this circumstance. I had been young and could not fully understand nor express what it meant. Though now I see what it is like to lose the ones that you love and hold dear. It was a painful experience and one that I could not ever forget.

After the death of that old horse, the days on the farm were to become dreary and dull. I would no longer race to the stables at dawn to ride him down to the stream where the kingfishers flew. I missed those days. I longed for them to come again. But they wouldn't.

Donny was buried in the paddock where he'd spent his first and final days. Even to this day, over eighty years, his headstone remains. He will always have a place in my heart, even though his body is long decayed and his spirit lost among shadows.

Life went on as it should have, but for sometime my father was quiet and secluded. I let him be as he let me, we both knew that the grief would pass, eventually. The farm labour was often neglected my father. I did not know where he was going or why he was going there, but he began to accept the nasty habit of drunkenness. After several weeks, I settled into the new routine.

On market days (Tuesday) my father would return home after several hours of pissing away his money on harsh ale. I would collect the drunken lout in the hallway and lump him up the stairs into his bedroom. He would sleep for several hours, then wake up, vomit and stumble back to bed. In the morning I would rise at dawn, scrub the puke and begin the morning chores. My father wouldn't normally surface until noon, at the earliest. Melissa would return home from the schoolhouse at four 'o' clock, I would cook supper, eat, wash up the dishes and then go to bed.

Bliss.

The summer rolled into autumn and autumn into winter, snow settled on the ground and Christmas was fast approaching. That years harvest had been a bad one, but the glad tidings were spreading like wild-fire. Decorations were being hung up around the village and people seemed to have a more festive aura about them.

Still, preparations were not in vigour in our household. As a young girl should, Melissa wished and begged that we could have a proper Christmas that year. We were in short supply of everything, from food to soap, and no matter how hard we worked or how long we laboured, we never grew any richer. In fact we were worse off than we'd ever been.

We were on our way home from Christmas mass at the church, when Melissa and I saw the mayor, John Pringle, and his wife going home in their lovely new motor car. They were going back to Morton Manor at the top of the hill overlooking the village. It was by far the most beautiful house, I'd ever seen, but it belonged a monster. This mayor had married three times and each wife fell victim of his vile cheating ways. He would only marry for pride and wealth and many people in the village despised him, but like every ruler, he had supporters. A strong force of blind men set to do his bidding and no more, those who didn't follow his orders were decommissioned and arrested.

In the words of my father, and I quote:

'What an arsehole!'

Pringle's current wife, Imelda Hopkins, had already fallen victim of his bullying and cheating but still she bore him a son. The baby's picture appeared in the local newspaper and he looked nothing like the mayor in question. It was a scandal; Imelda appeared to be just the cheat he was!

Ever since then, I hated Christmas, it was a time to realise how little you actually had and how much others did. I had half a family, no money a house that was falling apart brick by brick and a job that didn't even exist over the winter months. John Pringle had several families dotted across the globe, a beautiful mansion with a view, and a stupidly well-paid job that would be there until the next local election, even after the job went from his thieving hands; he would have a nice hefty wad of cash and would be old enough for retirement.

It really wasn't fair, but I supposed that that's just the way the wealth hierarchy works. Isn't it?