After a lot of false starts, I am now the proud occupant of a small weekend rental in the country. It is very exciting. No more commuting from Balham to Cobham to ride the horses. I wake up on Saturdays in a converted barn down a farm track and drive two minutes to the stable yard to see Tara, Grace and Darcy.
The three mares have now moved from their expensive livery yard to what we horse-owners rather disingenuously call a DIY yard. I say disingenuous because it’s not really DIY. A nice lady called Sue looks after them on weekdays and I ‘do them myself’ at weekends. Somehow, it saves a lot of money.
I had to move from the livery yard in the end because, despite the high prices, it was turning into a right dump. Once a smart eventing yard with rows of gleaming horses looking over the doors of polished stalls, it had started to look like the stables round the back of Albert Steptoe’s rag and bone yard. This, I am afraid to say, was because of the pikey quotient. In a recession, the number of pikeys scamming livery in any given stable yard sometimes goes beyond the optimum level whereby the mess is containable.
Yes, that’s right, I said pikey. In Surrey, the word pikey has nothing to do with gypsies or travellers and is commonly used to describe anyone of an unhygienic bent who refuses to sweep up after themselves, claims lavish state benefits, has a morbid BMI rating, at least two black teeth and more than seven tattoos.
The damage wrought by this sort of person in a public place can only be contained if the ratio of professional-to-pikey is no lower than 10–1. When it tips beyond that you are going to get an effect known as pikefication. Everything is going to become pikefied. Your stuff will go missing, whatever possessions you manage to hang on to will become bent and broken, you will smell pungently of Benson & Hedges even though you don’t smoke.
Even your horses will start trashing their bed at night so that by the morning it looks as if an IRA prisoner has been protesting in there because, well, they’ve seen the pikey ponies doing it. It wasn’t so bad for the two older mares but the thoroughbred yearling was learning some terrible habits.
‘I’ve got to get you out of here,’ I told Darcy one morning after I found her standing in a stable which she had comprehensively redecorated an interesting new colour called Hint of Poop.
The new place is immaculate. There isn’t a blade of straw out of place. From the sublime to the ridiculous. All the horse-owners are obsessively tidy and organised. Everyone has to have their own barrow, fork and broom.There are rules for everything, including the placement of small buckets beneath the water butts to ensure collection of drips.
Everyone is very nice, but I am under no illusion that if I scatter hay about as I carry a bale from the storeroom to the stable it could spark a diplomatic incident. This is because the tidiest people by far are the Germans. They are a sweet enough couple who have three horses in the same stable block as mine.
My storeroom is next to their storeroom. I had barely moved my stuff into it when she looked down at a bucket that was protruding from my doorway by half an inch. ‘Please to move your bucket so I can lead my horses around this corner.’
I thought I liked things well ordered. I spend an hour getting my horses’ beds right, arranging the fresh straw into a neat square banked up on three sides. The German beds are made of pure white shavings and have not a speck of muck in them. The banks are at perfect right-angles. I think she measures the edges with a protractor each morning. I keep trying to catch her at it but the Germans are always at the yard by the time I arrive, no matter how early I get there.
This is annoying because sometimes I long to get there first so I can wheel my barrow load into the empty muck truck first. But every time I get there, no matter how early, there they are, wheeling their barrows up the ramp to the beautiful virgin space of the empty flatbed.
‘Goddam it,’ I think. I get there earlier and earlier, at 7 a.m. some days. But the Germans are always there first. I was pondering this mystery to another horse-owner who just came right out and said it: ‘Why don’t you put your towel down on the muck truck?’ I hadn’t liked to say it, but that was exactly what I wanted to do.