Mrs Comfort opened the front door. While she didn’t exactly smile, she didn’t exactly frown either, and to the children, with their limited experience of adult behaviour, this did not seem unwelcoming. As she had done at their initial meeting, she looked at each of the children directly, with her gaze held just long enough for them to feel uncomfortable, and then nodded slightly at each of them. “Mr Cook’s expecting you, please come in,” she said in deep, careful tones that would not have sounded out of place in a BBC news broadcast.
The woman turned to lead the way inside. The children parted to allow her to pick up the milk crate off the front step. As she bent, her hair tumbled forwards and suddenly the cascade of chestnut was shot through with shining gold as it caught the sun. The sight made Jess catch her breath. The woman stood. Her uniform, superficially modelled on that of a Victorian parlour maid, had actually been cut in a modern style that revealed flatteringly her enviable figure. Jess could tell from the way it fitted her contours that she had made it herself. Perhaps at some point in the day there would be a chance to talk dressmaking. She would love that. Jess always paid attention to the way people dressed and her mother was the same. It seemed to be something inbuilt, and they often exchanged comments about people’s outfits as they passed them in the street.
To Katie there was an air of mystery about this woman. Mr Cook had referred to her as his housekeeper; but housekeepers were plain, old-fashioned and frumpy, weren’t they? Mrs Comfort was the inverse of this fictional stereotype, and Katie could easily imagine her starring in a Hollywood film: an adventure story perhaps, set in a jungle, with Mrs Comfort dressed in some kind of skimpy outfit made from animal skins. Katie pictured her coiled and motionless on a fallen tree trunk, a longbow and a quiver of arrows slung across her back, ready to spring like a cat.
Katie longed to find out more, but held her tongue; Mrs Comfort gave the distinct impression of being someone who would not welcome personal questions.
The woman led the children into the same room where they’d had tea on their previous visit. Katie remembered the occasion with a hollow ache. Her small helping of porridge from the communal porridge pot at Gran’s that morning had already worn off and she vaguely hoped that Mr Cook was someone in the habit of taking a mid-morning snack.
Alan made a beeline for the cabinet of model soldiers, while Jess and Tom flopped onto the couch. The fire had not yet been lit and the room felt cool. The cold cinders from last night still lay in the grate. By an armchair, on a small side table, Katie could see a single coffee cup. On the floor beside the chair, an empty wine glass sat on the Radio Times, and next to it lay a pair of folded spectacles. An orange-jacketed Penguin novel lay open on the seat. Katie noticed for the first time that the room had no television.
The door opened and Mr Cook entered, with Flora close at his side. Both were attired for the outdoors; Flora had been fitted with a bright green body warmer while Mr Cook looked at ease in jeans and a brown wool sports jacket, worn over a western-style checked shirt. “Good morning, all,” he said brightly, and smiled.
Reflexively, Jess and Tom stood. Katie cleared her throat. “Good morning, sir,” she said, and glanced at the others. Alan and Tom mumbled a similar greeting – standard procedure for addressing a male teacher entering the classroom. Jess said nothing but returned the smile.
Mr Cook feigned astonishment and horror, and staggered backwards waving his hands as if defending himself against an invisible foe. “I’d prefer it if you’d call me Mike, or Mr Cook if it feels more comfortable, but definitely not ‘sir’. Now, since it’s such a lovely day outside I thought we might explore the garden this morning, maybe take a look at some of the vegetables I’m growing, and see the animals.” Katie could not help performing a little bounce on her toes while giving a silent clap. Mr Cook continued, “Mrs Comfort will accompany us as far as the stables, since it is she who has most to do with the animals’ welfare.”
At that moment, Mrs Comfort reappeared. She had changed into an outfit Katie recognised as that favoured by well-to-do horsewomen – an olive green tailored tweed jacket worn over a white shirt with a frill down the front, long grey culottes and black riding boots. She had seen women dressed similarly, while out exercising their mounts on the beach during the winter months when the council permitted horse riding.
Mrs Comfort had pinned up her hair, making her look taller and even more formidable than before. She glanced around the room before uttering an almost inaudible tut that seemed to be aimed at nothing in particular; nevertheless, it caused the two boys to dip their heads. A tray appeared in her hand as if from nowhere and she quartered the room, quickly gathering all evidence of the previous evening’s activities while the children watched silently. She disappeared with the tray and returned an instant later carrying a riding crop. Pulling on a pair of black leather riding gloves as she walked, she crossed to the French windows and then turned and waited for the others to join her.
Alan glanced at Tom who studiously avoided returning his look and instead took a sudden and uncharacteristic interest in the rose bushes. Mrs Comfort took not the slightest notice of either of them and gripped her riding crop in both hands as she waited.
Katie could not help noticing how Jess looked at her, especially as she had managed to sidle right over until standing practically under the woman’s nose. Knowing Jess, no doubt she imagined herself wearing a similar outfit, suddenly the mistress of a posh household, giving orders to her servants and swiping her crop at anyone who moved a bit too slowly. Somehow, the image suited her, but to Katie it only served to magnify the difference between the two girls’ outlook on life. One day, Jess would make it. One day the riding crop would be hers to wield; Katie, on the other hand, thought it far more likely she’d be on the receiving end.
“Right, let’s go,” Mr Cook announced briskly, and opened the doors. “See if we can work up an appetite for some elevenses.”
The grass was still wet with dew and the party left a dark trail as they crossed the lawns. Katie glanced back in the direction they had come. The house was long, with two rows of windows, but the line of three dormers indicated the existence of a third, top floor. Tresses of purple and pink wisteria blossom, wonderfully colourful in the full May sun, covered much of the rear stonework. Several round, wrought iron tables, of the type most often seen in pub gardens, sported brightly-coloured umbrellas that steamed as they dried in the sunshine. Against the wall, a swing seat, devoid of its cushions, spoke to Katie of lazy summer afternoons spent lying under the canopy with a fat book and a cool drink. This would be a fun garden to spend time in, she thought.
Mrs Comfort left the children to their tour and branched off to the stables. Mr Cook guided them through an arched gap in the hedge into a second, much busier space. Cold frames and greenhouses marched down one path towards a row of compost bins and a rectangular pond. Growing beds, divided by paths, had been dug over and some had already been planted. One of Gran’s lodgers grew vegetables and Katie recognised carrots, onions and potatoes, earthed up in rows and trenches like a miniature battlefield. Cabbages and Brussels sprouts, under nets, lay beyond fruit cages populated with currants and raspberries.
The others looked less than fascinated. Tom had managed to acquire a half-inflated beach ball from somewhere, with which he proceeded to annoy Jess by dribbling it past her and then challenging her to try to take it off him. If any of this bothered Mr Cook then he did not show it, unlike Jess, who tutted and gave him the look. Even to Tom, her silent exasperation and flailing arms, held out to clear the way, signalled an unmistakable rebuff, and in the end he had to content himself with dribbling the ball around the cold frames, trapping it every so often between his feet and flipping it up into the air. A boy and his ball – two inseparable friends. Result, bliss!
Meanwhile, Alan had wandered into a greenhouse to cast his professional eye over some trays of tomato seedlings. At home, he helped his dad keep the garden tidy and knew a bit about growing. The plants were dry and he picked up a half-filled watering can from the floor and gave them a sprinkle.
Katie watched him through the glass as Mr Cook paused the tour on the far side of the plot and knelt to pull out a few small carrots. He washed them under a nearby tap and offered them to the girls. Jess just wrinkled her nose and smiled but Katie took them eagerly and quickly they were gone. “Not a veg fan?” Mr Cook said to Jess.
“Not really, not raw ones, anyway,” she replied. To Jess, carrots weren’t food as such, and even when cooked were just there to make stew go further.
“Most of Jess’s food is fried,” Katie said impassively, as if Mr Cook ought to have known this – after all, everybody else knew it. Mr Cook looked intrigued and waited for the lesson to continue.
Jess looked down at her shoes. “My mum serves in the Jolly Fryer.”
Instantly, Mr Cook clapped his hands. “Oh, capital, capital!” he enthused. “My absolute favourite chip shop, and believe me I know because I’ve tried them all. I send Ron down there most Friday nights when Mrs Comfort is off.”
Jess brightened up. “It’s your favourite? Really? I’ll tell Mum.”
“So you see, Mr Cook,” Katie continued, “onions come in rings with batter on.”
“Or pickled, out of a big jar,” Jess added.
“And peas are mushy, and get dished out with a ladle.”
Jess looked faintly disgusted. “I never touch those. They make you, you know…”
Mr Cook, clearly delighted at this game, joined in. “So potatoes are just chips stuck together?”
“Exactly!” the girls chorused and laughed, and Mr Cook laughed too. Between two episodes of keepie-uppies, Tom glanced over with a look of vague curiosity, wondering what he had missed now.
After vanishing for several minutes, Alan, still in the greenhouse, had now reappeared. Plainly, something on the greenhouse floor had captured his attention, and he stood up, red faced. He held a tool of some description, which he placed on the bench before exiting and making his way over to them. His fingers were blackened and greasy, but he had resisted the urge to wipe them clean on his trousers and his arms dangled freely, for once perfectly aware of their grubby state. “Is your mower giving you trouble, Mr Cook?” he asked when he had re-joined the group.
“It is, as a matter of fact. Don’t tell me you’ve fixed it?” Mr Cook replied.
“I haven’t fixed it but I’m pretty sure I know what’s wrong. The exhaust is black, which means it’s running too rich, so either the air filter needs cleaning – unlikely you would miss doing that – or the choke cable is out of adjustment. Everything else seems OK. My dad has an Atco and we have it in bits all the time. Just couldn’t find a screwdriver small enough in that box on the floor.”
Mr Cook looked impressed. “There are more tools in the stables. Would you like to try and get her going?” Alan’s thermonuclear grin answered the question for him. Suddenly desperate not to be left out of the action, Tom said, “I could help, couldn’t I?” he looked from Mr Cook to Alan. “Could I help?”
Katie watched Alan’s face as he considered the offer, and felt relief as she watched him compress his lips in a half smile and nod. “Yeh, sure,” he replied. He took the beach ball from Tom’s hands and hoofed it over the hedge. Tom watched it disappear from view, suddenly a boy without a purpose, a song-less troubadour, cut adrift from one of the few objects in his life that he could fully control.
“Right, let’s go and see what Mrs Comfort has been up to,” Mr Cook said briskly, and marched off in the direction of the house, with the children following. They emerged once again onto what Mr Cook referred to as the back lawn. The stable doors, all apart from one, stood open and pinned back. On the edge of the cindered area, in front of the building, six donkeys and a tall, brown horse stood tethered to a rail. So now they knew what lived in the stables. The horse, at least, had been half expected, but for what possible reason would Mr Cook keep six donkeys?
“Some years ago, the donkeys used to give rides on the beach; perhaps you remember?” Mr Cook said in anticipation of their first question. “For a short while, they were a business and a hobby for my eldest daughter – giving donkey rides down on the foreshore.”
Katie didn’t remember. “But why did it stop?”
Mr Cook considered his answer. “Another time, perhaps, I’ll explain. It’s quite a long and involved story, but I guess if you really want to know you’ll ask again, won’t you?”
Although it was an unexpected reply, that coming from someone else might have seemed like a rebuff, to Alan it made a kind of sense. People were always asking him things, his sister especially, and then not bothering to listen to the answer. It could be rather irritating.
“The upshot is that I gave the donkeys a home. I had the space and Mrs C had the experience. The stables had been empty since my father died, not that he rode any more near the end of his life, but my mother did. Come and meet them.”
The morning had turned warm, especially when the sun broke through from behind bubbling banks of cumulus cloud that indicated the afternoon’s weather might not be quite so benign.
Mrs Comfort had removed her jacket and draped it over the fence. With reddened cheeks, she looked warm, although not yet perspiring, as she lifted straw bales off a small trailer and pitched them through the stable doors. Several strands of hair had escaped their moorings and draggled around her face.
Two yard brooms leaned against the wall, and she looked at the boys and then nodded in their direction. “Get busy, you two,” she said to Tom and Alan, and pointed inside the stable. “You know how to use a broom, don’t you? There’s a shovel inside. When you’ve filled the barrow, tip it onto the dung heap. Then start sweeping, lads. Clean, mind.”
Then she looked at Jess and Katie. Reaching into a jacket pocket, she fetched out a penknife and offered it to the girls with, “Here, you two can put down the new straw,” and she tossed the knife to Jess. “Cut the twine and shake out half a bale into each bay. Easy.”
The girls went inside the stables. At first, it seemed very dark but, as her eyes adjusted, Katie could make out a row of stalls along the back wall. There were eight in all, each separated from its neighbours by an iron barrier clad in dark pinewood and topped with black-painted iron bars. The smell, a complex cocktail of dung, urine and summer grasses, was not unpleasant. Completely in character, Jess immediately pinched her nose and exclaimed an obligatory, “Pooh!”
The nearest stalls were empty. They had been cleaned and swept and now awaited the arrival of new straw. A herringbone arrangement of narrow channels marked the concrete floor on which had been dumped four or five straw bales. To Katie, even though she had never been inside a stable in her life, it felt like a homecoming.
Through the dusty air she could just make out the boys down at the far end, busy sweeping out the remaining stalls. At that moment, almost magically, the shifting clouds allowed three shafts of joyful sunlight to blaze down through the high windows, to illuminate random squares of whitewashed wall. Katie bounced joyfully onto the nearest straw bale and then, leaping off it, dropped onto one knee in the sunny spotlight and with outstretched arms shouted, “Hello, world! I’m Katie!”
“You’re mad,” Jess remarked and, opening the penknife, attacked the strings around the first bale. With the strings cut, unexpectedly, nothing much happened. The straw did not conveniently fall into a compliant heap and drift into place; instead, it remained more or less in its compressed, cuboidal state. Evidently, some further effort would be required to finish the task.
They had been given a dusty job and Jess spent more time tutting and patting herself down than actually helping, and so Katie did most of the work. However, it didn’t take that long and by the time they had reached the last two stalls, the boys had finished cleaning. Perhaps surprisingly, they had actually done a decent job. With Tom’s need for speed (“Finished!” “No, we’re not.”) and Alan’s rule-based thoroughness (e.g. Rule 191: never sweep towards yourself, always away) they rather complemented one another.
When they had inspected each other’s achievements, the children emerged into the daylight once again. Mr Cook stood by the rail talking to Mrs Comfort as she crouched by the horse, adjusting the straps of the saddle. Mr Cook waved them over. Mrs Comfort looked up from her task. “Well, dare I go and look at your handiwork?” she said sternly as she straightened and looked down at them.
The children were still not at all sure how to react to this mild challenge and remained silent, although Mr Cook’s amusement did not go unnoticed. To her credit, Jess managed a squeaked, “I think it went OK.”
It was odd. In the house, Mrs Comfort dressed as a maid and acted as a maid, but out here it seemed as if she had been given licence to play the mistress.
Obviously bored, Tom, hands in pockets, strolled around the horse and inspected it as if he were examining the latest sports car in town. Without warning, Mrs Comfort grabbed his collar and yanked him to her side. “Never stand behind a horse,” she cautioned, “especially one you don’t know.” Jess gave an involuntary chuckle that she suppressed immediately after Mrs Comfort gave her a look.
“This is Topper,” she continued. “He’s my horse. I raised him from a foal. He is fifteen now. I don’t think he’d kick you, Tom, but you never know.” Tom’s face had coloured and he looked sullen until she reached into her pocket and produced a sweet. “Here, give him a barley sugar. You’ll be friends for life then.”
Tom took the proffered candy and held it out gingerly. The animal immediately snarfed the offering, nodding his head vigorously and snorting in what could only be interpreted as approval. Mrs Comfort turned to the others. “So, would any of you like to sit in the saddle?”
All eyes immediately fell on Katie, who looked as if she might faint. Her stomach dipped and rose in a wave of sensation at least an order of magnitude greater than her usual hunger pangs. She stepped forward. “May I try?”
Mrs Comfort smiled faintly. “Yes, you may.” She guided Katie's foot into the stirrup. “Now, grab on to the pommel and pull yourself up.”
The stirrup was high but she managed. She threw her leg over the saddle and planted her buttocks on the hard, shiny leather, only to find herself sliding off the other side, but with the agility of a cat Mrs Comfort ducked below the horse’s head and caught her. “Whoops-a-daisy,” she said as she held Katie’s arm, and for the very first time the children saw her smile a broad open smile of encouragement as she pushed Katie upright once more.
The girl sat unsurely, gripping the pommel with both hands and puffing with excitement, as Mrs Comfort pushed her feet into the stirrups.
“What’s the view like?” Alan called up.
“Flippin’ amazing!” she managed to say while staring intently ahead. Her mount flicked his ears and waited patiently for further instructions.
Mrs Comfort adjusted the stirrups and then took the reins. “Hold on tight,” she called over her shoulder, and led the horse forward. Topper was not an ideal first mount for such a small child and Katie looked tiny against the bulk of the horse, as if she might actually be sitting astride an elephant.
The others stood on the bottom rail of the paddock fence and watched as the tall woman in her frilly white shirt and long, grey culottes led the horse around the jumps in a slow circuit over the nibbled grass; a prosaic, purposeless journey to nowhere in particular that nevertheless Katie wished would never end. At one point, she gave a tentative wave to the others, and for the briefest of moments a semi-smile flickered across the woman’s features, only to vanish again in a heartbeat.
This horse was taking Katie into a country for which she had no map. Every so often, Mrs Comfort glanced back and, satisfied Katie didn’t look too terrified, continued with their perambulation. However, like every journey of pleasure, the sadness inherent in its limited duration soon bore its sharp fruit, and after about ten minutes, they returned to the stables.
Katie dismounted without assistance while Mrs Comfort held Topper’s reins. Quite spontaneously, Katie gripped Mrs Comfort around the waist and leaned her face against her stomach. Looking only a little surprised, the woman briefly touched the girl’s hair. “Katie, isn’t it? Perhaps another time you can take the reins. Topper is quite gentle, you know.”
For a moment, Alan thought Katie might cry. Her flushed face wrinkled and she nodded before turning away to look at the donkeys.
“If you other children would like a ride I’m sure the girls will be happy to oblige,” Mr Cook said cheerfully, patting the nearest donkey. “You won’t need a saddle. This is Sadie, and that is Monica, then there is Annabel, Heidi, Robyn and, over next to Katie, Helena. Take your pick, boys and girls.” He gestured to the line of animals, who waited placidly in the May sunshine.
Jess looked distinctly indifferent to the idea of mounting a donkey. Everything considered, she thought she could probably live without the experience and, in any case, it wouldn’t be very dignified riding a donkey in a miniskirt. After a few brief moments of faux consideration, she returned a smile of polite refusal.
Tom was more forthright and didn’t even bother to consider the idea. “That’s kids’ stuff,” he scoffed. “I’ll have a shot at the horse, though.”
He grinned at Mrs Comfort who returned an immediate, “No you won’t, chum,” and as if to underline the point, she mounted Topper and turned for the paddock.
“What about you, Alan? Six lovely ladies, awaiting your patronage.”
Alan considered the idea. He could not think of a reason not to, apart from having to suffer the inevitable ribbing from Tom, but he was accustomed to that. Then, as he looked at the donkeys, a thought struck him. How was he supposed to choose which one to ride? Alan felt in a jam. To his untutored eye, the animals were practically identical and he didn’t know the first thing about donkey psychology. Surely, he reasoned, whichever mount he picked the possibility then arose that the other donkeys would become jealous and disappointed.
Then a rule popped into his head. Of course! The rule could choose for him. He would put their names into alphabetical order and pick the first name. Yes, that would do it, so once again, rules to the rescue! “Annabel, please,” he said decisively, and mentally filed Rule 209.
With an amused smile, Mr Cook untethered the animal and turned her. He handed Alan the reins and crossed to the stable, from where he fetched a wooden box. “You won’t need a saddle. I think they quite enjoy having a mount and giving rides. Perhaps it reminds them of their previous life: all those long summer days spent giving children trips along the sands. It was certainly one of my own children’s topmost pleasures when they visited the beach.”
Alan gave the reins to Jess, who reacted as if she had just been handed a live snake, stepped onto the box and sat himself astride the donkey. “Right-ho, Jess, let’s go,” he said cheerfully.
“Er, what did you say the donkey’s name was?” Jess said uncertainly.
“It’s Annabel,” Mr Cook smiled. “Just pull gently on the rein; she’ll know what to do.”
Jess led the donkey forward, stepping with infinite care, as if any sudden movement might precipitate some kind of panic-induced donkey frenzy that would send the animal galloping across the garden, braying and bucking wildly before tipping Alan into the rose bushes. The donkey plodded sedately forward and Jess led her in the direction of the paddock gate. Alan looked quite at home astride Annabel and smiled benignly. “This is fun,” he declared, giving his friends a regal wave.
“Have you got your camera with you?” Katie asked the receding Jess.
“Rake in my bag,” Jess replied without looking round.
A tasselled, rust-coloured suede shoulder bag hung on the fence. In the inside front pocket Katie found an Instamatic. She wound the film forward. “I’ll get you when you come back,” she called, and climbed the fence to sit next to Tom.
Jess and Alan kept to the perimeter of the paddock – a comical contrast to Mrs Comfort and Topper who occupied the centre. She trotted the horse elegantly and every now and again took one of the jumps at a gallop. It really was an impressive display.
After a circuit of the field Jess and Alan returned to the stables, both looking quite pleased with themselves. They ignored Tom’s suggestion that Alan should round off his Jesus impersonation by nipping home to fetch his dressing gown, sandals and a tea towel to go on his head, and fist-bumped as they posed with Annabel for Katie’s photo.
“And now we’ll let our ladies have a few hours’ freedom,” Mr Cook said, and began to unhitch the donkeys one at a time. “Tom, you can take Robyn, if it won’t compromise your manliness too severely. Jess, you take Helena, Katie can have Heidi and I’ll lead Sadie and Monica.”
With the donkeys released into the paddock, the party returned to the stables. “That was a busy morning, wasn’t it?” Mr Cook remarked as they crossed the lawns and approached the house. He glanced at his watch. “Oh my, look at the time. I was going to suggest elevenses, but it’s already past twelve. Can you stay for lunch?”
This was quickly becoming the best day of Katie’s life.