The year was 2001. I stood jet-lagged and shivering in the cold English air. Around the corner a driver waited in a car. In twenty minutes he would get back on the M11 and return me to Heathrow so I could claim my business class seat on Emirates and finally get back to Dubai. But first I had to look at this horse.
I’d already seen her X-rays. FedEx had caught up with me in Lexington, Kentucky. While the rest of the hotel had slept, I’d been wide awake reading films in my room. I had taken the lamp off the bedside table and put it on the carpet so I could sit on the edge of the bed and lean over the top of it. If I rested each film on the wire ring of the shade the bulb shone up through it like a spotlight. It was a trick I’d used countless times. Nobody had taught it to me. Did other vets use it? I had no idea. Necessity was the mother of invention – that and too many time zone changes.
Essential though they were, X-rays were never the whole story. They were static images, snapshot shadows captured in little square windows. That’s why I was here now, standing on the flagstones of a quaint four stall stable yard that was tucked away in a quiet part of a vast stud farm near Newmarket, the fabled home of English Thoroughbred horseracing. For centuries kings and aristocrats had bred and raced horses here. In the last few decades there had been something of a shift. English fortunes had waned and as properties fell into debt and disrepair Middle Eastern money had bought and rescued them. The English were not the only ones passionate about horses. These days swathes of countryside were owned by sheikhs. My boss was one of them. In fact, he owned this farm, all the horses on it and much else besides.
In this little stable yard I could see that only two of the four box stalls held horses at the moment. The groom unlatched the oak door of one and, with a leather lead shank draped over his arm, stepped into the gloom. I heard the crisp rustle of deep straw, inquisitive breath and the clink of brass before he led the filly out into the feeble sunlight.
She was a thing of beauty and I said as much. The groom made a terse reply that I wasn’t meant to catch. I knew what he must be thinking: “How would she know? Who is she to judge?” I was used to it, this hint of tension, this undercurrent of resentment. He was a man in his late fifties dressed in a tweed cap and waxed jacket. Most likely generations of his family had lived and worked in Newmarket. I’d bet he could trace his family tree back to the days of Eclipse. Racing was his birthright, his territory and here I was stepping all over it, an upstart with my teeny-tiny diamond stud earrings and bright blue jacket, an anti-establishment electric zap to faded tradition.
The trouble was I didn’t inherit the right DNA. How was that my fault? Nobody lifted me onto the back of a horse before I learned to walk. Nobody discussed racing results at the dinner table. I didn’t absorb horse sense in the air I breathed. I had to seek it out, to actively pursue it. And every scrap of knowledge I possessed was precious to me, it was so hard earned. The irony was that it had taken a man from a culture stereotyped as the most rigid and conservative in the world to give someone like me a chance.
I walked around the filly and looked at her from every angle while she fidgeted and kicked at imaginary flies. Her two-year-old life was on pause right now and her irritation showed. Then I stepped up and touched her shoulder. Her silky skin twitched under my fingers. I ran my hand down her leg and she automatically picked up her foot so that I could hold her cannon bone. Cradling her folded limb, I used my fingertips to see in my mind’s eye the contours of joints and ligaments.
Beyond the edge of my absorption, I was conscious of the groom’s skeptical eyes burning a hole in my back. In the good old days there were no X-rays, no ultrasound, endoscopy or any of the other high-tech rubbish that muppets like me called ‘sports medicine’. Was that what he was thinking? The problem was I was far too sensitive. Plus I was getting a headache. Jetlag had taken its grip.
I placed the filly’s foot back on the ground and straightened up.
“So will she go to Dubai?” asked the groom.
“Yes,” I said and watched his face flinch.
Another source of friction: talent that instead of staying in England to be trained by English trainers was siphoned away to the Arabian desert. It was what the boss wanted. It was as simple as that.
He led the filly back into her box without another word to me. I hovered awkwardly at the door. It would be polite to wait until he re-emerged, to say goodbye and shake his hand rather than just walk over to the waiting car, climb in and disappear. But he was taking his time, carefully putting her away like she was a precious china figurine. For something to do I turned to her neighbour and stroked the head that looked out over the door. It was snow white with age and I knew that this must be one of the retired broodmares, a pensioner on the farm who had been stabled here as a steady companion, a calming influence for the flighty young thing beside her. I pushed the overgrown forelock out of her dark eyes, patted her cheek and looked at the nameplate – then blinked in amazement and looked again.
At last the groom came out of the filly’s stall and shut the door.
“Indian Skimmer!” I pointed at this white old mare, my eyes wide.
“Yes,” he replied suspiciously.
Indian Skimmer, named after a rare bird. In the eighties she had been a champion in Europe and to me a sort of Holy Grail, the phantom epitome of an arcane kind. I’d never seen her in real life. I was a university student on the other side of the world and the closest I’d come to her back then was a grainy VHS tape. I still remembered the strange sensation I’d felt watching it. Even after the VHS machine had been switched off the feeling of grandeur had uplifted me as I’d shouldered a backpack straining at the seams with anatomy textbooks and trudged off to the library.
Now, so many long years later, I stood transfixed. The groom looked from me to her and back again. “I’ll bring her out for you,” he offered.
In a moment she was standing before me, the once great race mare, barefoot and swaybacked. I put my hands on her withers. Yes, she was tall. I remembered an Amazon warrior queen, invincible and muscular with the wind streaming through her mane. I spoke to her but she didn’t even swivel an ear, just gazed serenely into the distance, noble and oblivious.
“She’s quiet as a lamb now but she was a bit of a madam in her day,” said the groom, as though he felt the need to apologize for her lack of response.
I nodded, choked up, and suddenly felt a terrible stab of despair. One day when I was old would I be this composed, this content?
“So where in America do you come from?” he ventured, a tentative stab at conversation.
“I’m Canadian – like her grandsire Northern Dancer.”
I was trying to rack up points by demonstrating that I knew her pedigree. I saw him stifle his amusement. Something about the way I’d said it sounded completely ridiculous and pretentious. Every Canadian with zero connection tried to claim a speck of the enduring aura of the long dead Northern Dancer. I allowed myself an embarrassed smile because, after all, the joke was on me.
“Actually, I’m surprised you know anything about Indian Skimmer,” he admitted as he led the mare back inside.
She circled her stall and went for her hay net. And that was the end of that.
I thanked the groom. And I was turning to go when he called after me, “Would you like a cup of tea before you shoot off?”
“I’m going to put the kettle on in the tack room to make some.”
I checked my watch. Time was tight and I wasn’t such a fan of the English tea habit. What I needed was a double espresso.
But behind me Indian Skimmer rustled her straw.
“I’d love a cup,” was what I said.