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The grading of a Romany boy and his colt

November 25, 2014

I clicked at Belle to encourage her off the ramp. She raised her proud head and her pink nostrils flared.
“Come, lass, it’s your big day. Just a few steps and a run, with little George at your side.” She was still not sure of the other horses and people, and was less bold than usual with her colt so new.
Carefully, turning into her neck so that no one saw me, I stuck my gloved hand through the neck of my fleece and into my arm pit. I pushed my sweat covered fingers into her nostrils, and she sighed and bowed her head. This meant she trusted me and would follow into the chaos, my scent calming her. My Da had me do that when she was first born, her white nose covered in foal down, me a sunburnt kid shorter even than her spindly legs. That was eleven years ago, and she still would sigh at my scent, her ears would prick and her brown eyes soften.
The mare walked off the trailer, her mini-me at her rump. The sunlight glinted through the baby-oiled black and white body. I had been up before the sun this morning, washing her in fairy liquid (the blue one bleached her white patches); combing the special conditioner through her feathers, mane and tail until the heavy hair was silky soft; scrubbing her hooves and wiping them in pig oil. I’d be for it when sis found out that I had used all her best conditioner, but it was worth it to see Belle so fine, to show them what she could do.
Da, in his best suit, the one with the narrow lapels like a gangster from the 90s, met us with her special leather halter, the one that she’d worn when she’d won at Appleby.
“She’ll do.” He said as his clever fingers worked the heavy buckles. I wanted very badly to smile at the rare compliment, but someone might see. Surely I was a bit taller. I fussed over her and the colt, fluffing the feathers that hung like flared trousers round her oiled hooves, untangling the odd knot in her floor length tail. George was scared of the other horses and people, and he kept getting in the way as he tried to stay as close to me and his mum as he could, his tiny pink tongue licking his busy chewing lips. That touch of fear would make him shine in the grading, he would float in front of the judges.
“It’s time. How’do we look?” Da struck a pose, hand on hip, blue eyes laughing.
“You’ll do.” I said.
“Cheeky.” He made as if to box my ears, but I grinned and ducked away.
We walked through the other horses, mostly tall scared things that danced in their groom’s hands. Most of the owners were women, as expensive and well cared for as their horses, their grooms thin and tan. Belle was the only coloured horse here, the only one with so much hair on her head, and legs and tail. But she was beautiful, and George was beautiful and I was as proud of them as if they were thirty grand warmbloods.
When we got to the ring, I left them and Da at the entrance, and I ran to the gallery where I could watch the judging.
The mare and foal before us were both bay, with black points. The mare was a thoroughbred, but registered with the dutch warmblood society. Her foal didn’t seem to touch the ground, but ran around and around as the handler trotted up her dam. I liked them, this big brown pair. When they were finished, the two old women judges walked to near the gallery and I overheard them talking about the horse’s movement.
Then it was us. My breath caught as they came in. The sun was less bright in here, but still it seemed to light my horses as if they were in a film. They were so beautiful.
“What’s this, my big fat gypsy wedding?” The taller judge said in what she clearly believed was an quiet whisper.
“Damn pikeys get everywhere. Like rats. Do you think he last wore that suit in court?” They grimaced at each other.
Red seemed to fill my eyes, followed by tears. I could hear the blood in my veins, pounding. I seemed to be underwater, watching a man that was suddenly a stranger, in his shiny suit, and a couple of cart horses. I had to get out of there.
I ran to the van, pushing through the snooty fucking bitches and their big fucking horses. I could barely see, as I wrenched open the sliding door and huddled in the pile of rugs, against the warm smell of horses and leather and hay. It had always given me comfort before, but not today.
I had to stop crying before Da came back. He hadn’t seen me cry since I was six years old. He wouldn’t now.

I snuck out of bedroom when I Sis started snoring. Like I had so many times before when I couldn’t sleep I got out my old bike and raced to the field. I thought of nothing as my legs pumped and the orange streetlights faded into moonlight as I left the estate. I hid my bike in the hollow under the tree like always to stop someone taking it. I was glad of the silver glow of the moon, but I knew my way.
Belle and George were under the big hedge. She whickered a welcome. I petted her neck, then vaulted onto the warm back. She picked at the hedge as I lay across her, legs and arms hanging and my head cradled by her soft rump. I looked at the sky as I often had before.
The words spoken at the grading repeated through my mind. I had heard similar, of course I had, and worse, at school and in the street. But for some reason they had never touched me like this. Da had told me it doesn’t matter what they think, that George was the best we had bred, that he would stay entire and be mine. That our family lived through and with these horses and always would. That even though they had taken our roads and our caravans and forced us into static houses that we would still be us as long as we had these horses and loved them.
Still the women’s high voices rattled in my mind and I could not quieten.
My fingers jerked as George started suckling them. I tried to push him off but he reached up with his soft nose and he snuffled into my ear. After a while I stopped resisting and I watched the stars and the moon. My mare shifted beneath me and my colt breathed beside us as we waited in the dark.

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