The Weekend Read

Horse Winter

By Riona Judge McCormack



3rd Nov 2017

Horse Winter
‘At a distance, she was at least a girl…’ Read ‘Horse Winter’ by Riona Judge McCormack…

Winter was closing in when Christopher returned to Thendele Falls. The foothills had already turned, paling to gold as the grasses died. The days at that time of year rose clear and cloudless – hot by midday, cool enough for a sweater by dark.

His aunts had been coming to Thendele since they were young girls out of boarding school. They had hoarded a piece of themselves from that time, coy and silly.

“Oh, Criffy,” they’d say, one hand on his forearm.

“Amelia sweet,” he’d reply, entering into the spirit of the thing. Or, “anything for dear Anabel.”

They liked it when he used their first names, the aunts. They asked him along, he knew, because they liked having a young man about to open doors and to converse with over dishes of Neapolitan ice-cream. He went because there was the matter of their endowment. And the place had its attractions: sullen banker’s daughters growing into their long legs; college girls with wide painted mouths.

That last winter, though, was a quiet one. In the dining hall they found themselves alone with the spreading damp and the thousand dead breakfasts folded into the curtains.

“The Bradlows must have changed to summer,” the aunts reassured each other. “The Smits will have been and gone.” The new hotels at Southbroom and Margate were not discussed. Christopher understood: if the resort had aged then so had they.

The only girl on the grounds that winter was a horse-hand. He saw her in the distance that first morning, chucking at a young gelding’s head. At a distance, she was at least a girl. Closer to, cutting across the balding croquet lawn that same evening, she had that bowed look very tall girls often do. A plain face, all jaw. She might have been there previous seasons and he wouldn’t have noticed.

In any case, that winter Christopher developed an interest in horses.

He left the aunts by the kidney-pool each morning, towels arranged across their laps, toes in the water. Their loungers were rusted at the joints. Moss sprouted among the brickwork.

“Off, Criffy dear?”

“Out riding.”

They dangled their toes and sipped from cups of cooling tea. He noticed their lipstick mouths had shifted a little to one side, as if applied in poor light. “Good for young men to have some exercise,” they agreed. “Scones at eleven,” they reminded him.

Margie, the girl was called. She seemed to own nothing but shirts, worn loose over jodhpurs. That first day she could hardly look him in the eye.

“Praat jy Afrikaans?” Did he speak Afrikaans?

“No.”

Her English was laborious, thick-mouthed and shy. “You rode before?”

“Once or twice.”

She nodded to herself, still looking at the ground. Then she turned and bellowed, far too loud for such a thin frame:

“Here: boy!” A black child hunched against a paling-fence kicked his feet and ambled to the tack-room.

He watched her get a bay mare saddled up, her fingers quick, the child trotting about with leather in his arms. She fussed a while at the bit so she wouldn’t have to face him. Then she led the mare by the head to the fence.

“This here is Smuts.”

Christopher frowned at Smuts, cockless. “But he’s a she.”

“Ja,” Margie smiled, abashed. “My little brother he named her, before he knew.” She nodded at the fence. “You can mount here.”

He turned the mare from the fence and gripped the pommel and swung himself easily up. When he had settled the stirrups she was looking up at him.

“Once or twice, ney?”

He shrugged.

The resort trail wound tamely through the foothills. They reined in at a rise above the camp and let the horses crop at the dry veld grass.

“Could we go on up? Let them out for a run?” He lifted his chin at the pale lower berg. She turned in the saddle to look. Mounted, she looked more at ease, that long back straight.

“Ja, sure.”

Her gelding sniffed at his mare’s rump. She clicked her tongue and turned the horse uphill toward a smaller track. Christopher watched her ass as she stood for a canter.

Maybe, he thought, urging his mare forward.

“You wouldn’t be courting that girl, Criffy?” the aunts teased when he returned, hot and rumpled, to devour the plated meats. “You prefer her company to ours?”

“Never, ladies.” Christopher feigned horror. “A boertjie like her, over two refined creatures such as yourselves?”
They tittered. He grinned a mouthful of limp lettuce.

That last morning Christopher lost his hat out on the trail. He realised at the re-entry to the paddock, ducking under

the beam and reaching up a hand to hold it in place.

“My hat.”

“Ag, no.”

“I have to get it.”

She looked and saw that he meant it.

“We can take my car.” She whistled and the stable boy came running.

The aunts raised plucked eyebrows under their sunhats as he passed the pool, the girl at his side.

“Margie here is taking me out for a spin.” He thumbed in Margie’s direction, who seemed to shrink in upon herself.

“Now Criffy!” Aunt Anabel trilled after them. “Do behave!”

The car was a Citi Golf with one window cardboarded up. She coughed an apologetic laugh. “It’s baie old.”
Christopher flipped the radio knob and the Beach Boys came rattling into the car along with some long-distance static. “Gets music just fine,” he said, and that seemed to relax her a little.

He wasn’t sure he wanted her, even then.

They found the hat hung jauntily on the post by the second sheep-grille, where they had dismounted to lead the horses in. He slapped it on his head and pulled at the bill, triumphant.

“Still fits.”

They grinned suddenly at each other, out there in the expanse of the foothills.

Without another word she set the car away from the resort in the direction of the berg. She worked the gears like he had seen her fit tack, smooth and decisive.

He tapped idly on the dashboard, watching her. “It was from my father. The hat.”

“Oh?” She shifted down to get the Golf up a steep turn. “You going to give it back?”

“He’s dead.”

She closed her mouth on another spell of silence. He waited her out.

“You married?” she asked finally.

“Almost.”

“Almost?”

“We’re set for September. There’s a job waiting for me at her father’s company, up in the city.” He let a beat unroll between them. “And you?”

“Ja,” she said, as though relieved. “I mean, no, not yet, but I have a man. Frikkie. He runs the butcher-shop in town. With his pa. He wants to ask me. To marry him. Frikkie does.”

“Nice.”

She winced.

“Jou tannies,” she asked. “They come here every year?”

“Since whenever. Ten, fifteen years I think. I suspect they had a beau many years ago. Followed him here.”

“A bou…?”

“A beau. A crush, a love. A lover.”

She blushed then. He thought of her butcher boy, who must be shorter than her, this tall girl with rounded shoulders. Thought it must be hard to be from a small town and short too. Wondered if the boy took it out on her.

“You ever been to the city?”

“Maritzburg?”

“Johannesburg.”

“No,” and she was smaller now, like he had hoped.

“Never went on a school trip? Mother never took you?”

“My ma, she never got out of town. She was born here on a plot herself. Just past Finkersdorp.”

“And your pa?”

Her face turned upon itself, shadowed. He had the shape of that thought without wanting to. He was angry with her then, for pulling him into her sad little story, of meat-smelling fingers and dead summer afternoons.

“You love him?”

“Who?”

“Your butcher boy.”

She twisted her mouth. “I suppose.”

“You suppose.”

“And you?”

“Me?”

“You love her, your girl?”

“Oh yes,” he said easily.

He watched as she drew her lower lip in. Veld grasses whipped by. The radio hiccupped with static.

She cleared her throat, glancing over. “You like to see the river?”

“Sure.” He knew now where this was going, wasn’t surprised that as she reached for the gearstick her hand brushed his leg.

Off the road ran a gravel track, angling toward the river. They jounced along for two or three hundred metres before she pulled into a dirt siding. The foothills rose to the left, cupping the water that ran through them in a thin stream before pooling against a small dam. When the engine died there was a thick stillness.

“Here,” she said, still facing forward. “…it’s. Pretty. You know.”

She waited. He let her get out first, watched her lean against the bonnet, as if she didn’t know he was watching. Country girls could not lie with their bodies, he thought idly. It must be something the city taught.

When he did move, he moved slowly: opening the door, levering himself out, letting it clank shut, stalking silently around the back of the car and up behind her. He stood there, a few inches from touching her. It was still and warm.

The grasses moved, a francolin cried in the underbush. Then he began to unbuckle his belt.
She did not protest when he pulled her shirt up over her head and dropped it onto the dirt so that her long back was bare. It was approaching midday, the sun directly above them, and he knew the metal of the bonnet would be hot against her thighs and palms. Neither of them spoke. She just took it, presenting her behind to him and then letting him do as he wanted, bracing herself against the car. Like a fucking horse, he thought, as he worked away at her. Just like getting up on a horse.

When it was done, he rested on her for a few moments, breathing hard. The engine ticked slowly away below them. He felt empty and clean.

“Thanks,” he said. He patted her rump before pushing himself away and buckling back up.

Her shirt was on the ground and he bent for it. She had one hand across her small breasts, reaching out with the other to take the shirt, her face hidden under the fall of her hair. While she dressed he looked at the great heave of water bending glassily over the dam lip. The whole episode had taken just a few minutes. He could hear her tidying herself up, things becoming clear again. Her butcher-boy sidling back into view.

Without asking, he slid into the driver’s seat where the keys still hung in the ignition. The engine roared high and tinny. On the radio, I Wish You Were Mine was playing.

“Home time,” he said, slapping the wheel to the beat.

She stood where he had, her back to the car, watching the water. Her head had a strange angle to it. In the long grasses the francolin-hens were crying again.

Then she turned and walked loose-limbed back to the car. Without a word she swung herself into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut smartly.

They bumped out onto the gravel road. Beside him, she shimmied down in her seat, pulling her legs to her chest.

With the toe of one boot she worked the other off, shedding each smoothly and letting them drop to the floor. He watched her bare toes flex. Then she hitched her work-tanned legs up on the dashboard, crossing one ankle over the other.

“We okay?” he asked.

She closed one eye, assessing him sideways through the other. He could see her, suddenly, stretched cat-like across her parent’s shambling stoep, the metal weave of the chair printing itself onto the strip of skin on her back where her work-shirt rode up, her father a shadow in the doorway to the sun-darkened house beyond.

She bared her teeth in a grin.

“I’ve had better,” she said.