seniority alone, and had she been a man the job would have been hers automatically. He had decided, as he was a just and logical person, that her sex was immaterial. She became the only female head lad in Newmarket, where girl lads anyway were rare, and the stable had flourished through all the six years of her reign.

I remembered the days when her parents used to turn up at the stables and accuse my father of ruining her life. I had been about ten when she first came to the yard, and she was nineteen and had been privately educated at an expensive boarding school. Her parents with increasing bitterness had arrived and complained that the stable was spoiling her chances of a nice suitable marriage; but Etty had never wanted marriage. If she had ever experimented with sex she had not made a public mess of it, and I thought it likely that she had found the whole process uninteresting. She seemed to like males well enough, but she treated them as she did her horses, with brisk friendliness, immense understanding, and cool unsentimentality.

Since my father's accident she had to all intents been in complete charge. The fact that I had been granted a temporary licence to hold the fort made mine the official say-so, but both Etty and I knew I would be lost without her.

It occurred to me, as I watched her capable hands moving quietly across Moonrock's bay hide, that the fat man might find me a pushover, but as an apprentice his son Alessandro was going to run into considerable difficulties with Miss Henrietta Craig.

'You better go out with the string, Etty,' I said. 'I'll stay and wait for the vet.'

'Right,' she said, and I guessed she had been on the point of suggesting it herself. As a distribution of labour it was only sense, as the horses were well along in their preparation for the coming racing season, and she knew better than I what each should be doing.

She beckoned to George to come and hold Moonrock's headcollar and keep him soothed. To me she said, stepping out of the box, 'What about this frost? It seems to me it may be thawing.'

'Take the horses over to Warren Hill and use your own judgement about whether to canter.'

She nodded. 'Right.' She looked back at Moonrock and a momentary softness twisted her mouth. 'Mr Griffon will be sorry.'

'I won't tell him yet.'

'No.' She gave me a small businesslike smile and then walked off into the yard, a short neat figure, hardy and competent.

Moonrock would be quiet enough with George. I followed Etty back into the main yard and watched the horses pull out: thirty-three of them in the first lot. The lads led their charges out of the boxes, jumped up into the saddles, and rode away down the yard, through the first double gates, across the lower yard, and out through the far gates into the collecting paddock beyond. The sky lightened moment by moment and I thought Etty was probably right about the thaw.

After ten minutes or so, when she had sorted them out as she wanted them, the horses moved away out beyond the paddocks, through the trees and the boundary fence and straight out on to the Heath.

Before the last of them had gone there was a rushing scrunch in the drive behind me and the vet halted his dusty Land Rover with a spray of gravel. Leaping out with his bag he said breathlessly, 'Every bloody horse on the Heath this morning has got colic or ingrowing toenails- You must be Neil Griffon- sorry about your father- Etty says it's old Moonrock- still in the same box?' Without drawing breath he turned on his heel and strode along the outside boxes. Young, chubby, purposeful, he was not the vet I had expected. The man I knew was an older version, slower, twinkly, just as chubby, and given to rubbing his jaw while he thought things over.

'Sorry about this,' the young vet said, having given Moonrock three full seconds examination. 'Have to put him down, I'm afraid.'

'I suppose that hock couldn't just be dislocated?'

I suggested, clinging to straws.

He gave me a brief glance full of the expert's forgiveness for a layman's ignorance. 'The joint is shattered,' he said succinctly.

He went about his business, and splendid old Moonrock quietly folded down on to the straw. Packing his bag again he said, 'Don't look so depressed. He had a better life than most. And be glad it wasn't Archangel.'

I watched his chubby back depart at speed. Not so very unlike his father, I thought. Just faster.

I went slowly into the house and telephoned to the people who removed dead horses. They would come at once, they said, sounding cheerful. And within half an hour, they came.

Another cup of coffee. Sat down beside the kitchen table and went on feeling unwell. Abduction didn't agree with me in the least.

The string came back from the Heath without Etty, without a two-year-old colt called Lucky Lindsay, and with a long tale of woe.

I listened with increasing dismay while three lads at once told me that Lucky Lindsay had whipped round and unshipped little Ginge over by Warren Hill, and had then galloped off loose and seemed to be making for home, but had diverted down Moulton Road instead, and had knocked over a man with a bicycle and had sent a woman with a pram into hysterics, and had ended up by the clock tower, disorganising the traffic. The police, added one boy, with more relish than regret, were currently talking to Miss Etty.

'And the colt?' I asked. Because Etty could take care of herself, but Lucky Lindsay had cost thirty thousand guineas and could not.

'Someone caught him down the High Street outside Woolworths.'

I sent them off to their horses and waited for Etty to come back, which she presently did, riding Lucky Lindsay herself and with the demoted and demoralised Ginge slopping along behind on a quiet three-year-old mare.

Etty jumped down and ran an experienced hand down the colt's chestnut legs.

'Not much harm done,' she said. 'He seems to have a small cut there- I think he probably did it on the bumper of a parked car.'

'Not on the bicycle?' I asked.

She looked up, and then straightened. 'Shouldn't think so.'

'Was the cyclist hurt?'

'Shaken,' she admitted.

'And the woman with the pram?'

'Anyone who pushes a baby and drags a toddler along Moulton Road during morning exercise should be ready for loose horses. The stupid woman wouldn't stop screaming. It upset the colt thoroughly, of course. Someone had caught him at that point, but he backed off and broke free and went down into the town-'

She paused and looked at me. 'Sorry about all this.'

'It happens,' I said. I stifled the small inward smile at her relative placing of colts and babies. Not surprising. To her, colts were in sober fact more important than humans.

'We had finished the canters,' she said. 'The ground was all right. We went right through the list we mapped out yesterday. Ginge came off as we turned for home.'

'Is the colt too much for him?'

'Wouldn't have thought so. He's ridden him before.'

'I'll leave it to you, Etty.'

'Then maybe I'll switch him to something easier for a day or two-' She led the colt away and handed him over to the lad who did him, having come as near as she was likely to admitting she had made an error in putting Ginge on Lucky Lindsay. Anyone, any day, could be thrown off. But some were thrown off more than others.

Breakfast. The lads put straight the horses they had just ridden and scurried round to the hostel for porridge, bacon sandwiches and tea. I went back into the house and didn't feel like eating.

It was still cold indoors. There were sad mounds of fir cones in the fireplaces of ten dust-sheeted bedrooms, and a tapestry fire screen in front of the hearth in the drawing-room. There was a two-tier electric fire in the cavernous bedroom my father used and an undersized convector heater in the oak panelled room where he sat at his desk in the evenings. Not even the kitchen was warm, as the cooker fire had been out for repairs for a month. Normally, having been brought up in it, I did not notice the chill of the house in winter: but then, normally I did not feel so physically wretched.

A head appeared round the kitchen door. Neat dark hair coiled smoothly at the base, to emerge in a triumphant arrangement of piled curls on the crown.

'Mr Neil?'

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