Sitting opposite me in an elegant restaurant, my male friend looked deep into my eyes and said three little words. And with those three little words, he changed my world for ever.
‘You need Swarfega.’
‘Swuh…swuh…’ I said, feeling a lump forming in my throat and my whole identity crumbling.
‘Swarfega. You know, the heavy-duty hand-cleaner in the red and green tubs. You can buy it on the internet.’
I looked down at my hands. But they weren’t there. Someone had put the hands of Albert Steptoe on the ends of my arms instead. ‘Oh my god! Where have my hands gone?’ I gasped.
The waitress came and topped up my water glass but she needn’t have bothered. I stuffed my grimy, weather-beaten, puffy, wrinkled hands under the table, never to emerge again.
How did this happen? When did I become so indelibly ingrained with dirt and muck that I could no longer get it off in a normal Jo Malone lime, basil and mandarin scented bath? When did I start needing industrial grease remover for garage mechanics and farm workers? In truth, I know exactly when. It was the end of October. That was when I began the process of doing winter as the owner of three horses, including one who has retired and so lives out in a field.
The builder boyfriend has a further two horses. That makes five horses. Even I can see that five horses is an insane number of horses. Well, six, if you count the horse that’s turned out in a field with mine, which I’m feeding every day because her owner doesn’t bother.
So, six horses to think about, basically. I lie in bed at night with my chest aching thinking, ‘Six horses! Six horses!’ I can’t sleep, obviously. But I don’t count sheep, I count horses. Horses jumping over fences and running out into the road to collide with traffic. It’s not very relaxing and doesn’t get me to sleep at all.
My daily routine now involves a small amount of living my own life, then a large amount of managing Tara’s life. As soon as I pull my Fiat Panda up on the verge, she mooches over to see me. I climb the gate and check she is warm underneath her three rugs, which she always is, on account of their being three of them, the innermost one a high-tech thermal liner that makes the whole arrangement comfortable and soft so she feels all cosy. Or that’s what I tell myself.
She feels something but we can’t know what. Bafflement, probably. She peeps at me from under the rug, which stops just short of her ears, as if to say, ‘I’ve got a perfectly good coat of my own, you know. It’s called fur.’
And I say, ‘Yes, well, that’s as maybe, madam, but you’ll wear your vest and raincoat or you won’t go out to play.’
I put the feed bowls down — nuts and chaff and chopped-up carrots. Then I break the frozen water in the trough. Then I check the haylage hasn’t run out. Then I start rubbing Tara’s lower legs and feet with Sudocrem (how did the world function before they invented Sudocrem?) to make sure she doesn’t get the dreaded mud fever. I tried to rub the other horse’s feet in barrier creams but she took exception to this, and bit my leg so hard my entire thigh turned black.
The other day I was bent upside down rubbing cream on Tara’s back legs as the horses munched when a lady walking her dog stopped and said, ‘Excuse me, whose are those horses in the field over there?’ I knew exactly what she was going to say. The horses in the field over there are stick thin and unrugged. There are seven of them. I’ve thought about bankrupting and/or fatally wounding myself by trying to feed them and rub their legs with creams but I had to rule against it in the end.
‘It’s terrible,’ she said, with the shocked expression of a caring but ultimately naive country newcomer who knows nothing of how widespread horse neglect has become lately.
‘Welcome to my world,’ I said. She hurried off to call the RSPCA and I wished her well. The worst recession in living memory, coupled with the worst winter, was never going to be a picnic for our four-legged friends. And for the people who are willing to go slightly deranged in the pursuit of horse-care, it’s a case of abandoning yourself to the dirt until your fingernails require industrial cleaner.
I sneaked a look at them under the table as my friend ate his bouillabaisse. When I got home I went on the internet and ordered a tub of the S-word.