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Issue 39

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Icelandic surfing, enabled by the new Land Rover Defender | Artisanal globe-making in London with Bellerby & Co | Gallery of stunning drone photography | Author Helen Russell explores the meaning of happiness | Exclusive short story by Jean Macneil

Exclusive short story

Exclusive short story Horse People by Jean McNeil Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, McNeil is an award-winning author of 13 books, including six QRYHOV6KHZDVZULWHULQUHVLGHQFHLQ$QWDUFWLFDZLWKWKH%ULWLVK$QWDUFWLF6XUYH\DQGLVDTXDOLƓHG walking safari guide. Her latest novel, Fire on the Mountain, is set in southern Africa. W e arrived in the Cederberg in late August, the cusp of spring. The land was carpeted with a flower I would learn was called Haemanthus, or blood lily. We were met by five women and three dogs. The women – Helene, Maria, Annelise, Marine and Wilma – were all related, although it was difficult to work out exactly how. I said, “Just like you Leo, to find a farm of women.” Helene was a rugged woman in her mid-40s, sharpminded but not unkind. When she saw it was me driving the horse trailer she said, “Ag, thank God, a woman!” Later, when I asked where the men were, Helene told us her father had died of a heart attack – “Too much braai” – the sons were away at boarding school and there was a male foreman, but he was out in the bush most of the time. She gestured in the direction of a sandy lane. “It’s been a while since we’ve had horse people on the farm so the stables are in bad shape. But at least you’ll have your privacy.” She thought we were a couple. Most people did, at first at least, and Leo did nothing to disabuse them of the idea. “Just watch out for the baboons,” she said. “Don’t leave your door open, even for a second. They’ve figured out how to get the windows open, too, so we’ve put locks on those.” We drove down the lane. Ochre shale erected itself in steep walls on either side. I felt eyes on us – the eyes of the Khoisan, if I were to be fanciful. We see the slender silhouette of the bushman everywhere here – on the packaging of the organic rooibos Helene farms, painted on the side of the holiday cottages she lets out to hikers and climbers and families wanting a blast of rusticity, on the tourist brochures they hand out in Clanwilliam – everywhere but on the land they once traversed on foot, braving leopard and lion, to hunt. We reached the stables and undid the clasps on the trailer. Eeshani was pouring with sweat. Leo said, “What’s a thoroughbred going to do in this heat?” “She goes where I go. If it gets too hot for her, I’ll go back,” I said. I led Eeshani into the stable, which smelled of must and baboon droppings. Bits of ancient bridle, petrified by the kiln heat of the Cederberg, dangled like biltong from rusty nails. Eeshani poked her nose into the dank stalls then jolted back as if she’d seen a ghost. I sat down on a fossilised bale of hay. I was overtaken by a feeling of unreality; had we really left everything behind? The lime bower at the bottom of the garden, the pineapple lilies, the iguana’s back of Table Mountain shearing the sky. “Janine, there is no back.” Leo’s green eyes flooded with shadow. “You could have stayed,” he said. “It’s not as if your name was on those loans.” “You sound like you want me to leave you to your exile. Would that make you feel any less guilty?” He had no answer to that. Siegfried gave me a look of unmistakable anxiety – horses are as good as humans at these, the note of alarm in their eyes just as legible. He was unused to any argument between us. Leo and I had always had an instinctive feeling for each other’s internal reality; it was this natural sympathy, and our love for horses, which bound us. In fact, the horses were the conduit – we were all of us, his horse, mine, the two of us a tight quartet, bound by an unordinary pact. We got used to life on Helene’s farm. We forgot our old lives so quickly I wondered why I had never burnt bridges before. I liked the singed smell, the cauterised regret. I’d heard people talk of a clean break but I’d never attempted it and wondered now why it had taken me so long. In spring, plums tumbled from the tree outside our cottage and Marine made sour granadilla cake and brought it to us every day. Business was good. The visitors were from Cape Town or Joburg, inevitably. They were surprised at first that it was me leading the tours. They rarely said anything until they saw my rifle, eyeing the .375 I kept tucked into a specially tailored saddlebag. ILLUSTRATION: DAVID DORAN 72

Sometimes they tried a joke, What, are you going to kill me if I don’t hold my reins right? I only smiled and said it was the law, in South Africa, to be armed in wilderness areas. All spring we avoided the post office. When we did go a stack of alarming letters awaited, stamped with ‘Final warning’ and ‘Bailiffs have been instructed’. Threaded between these were other letters on thick stationery, addressed to Leo in faultless handwriting. He never gave any of the women who boarded their horses with us his personal email, leaving that part of our business to me (a direct quote: “Email is against my religion”). I would think of those women sometimes, sitting down at tables in the city’s southern suburbs in houses surrounded by electrified gates, shuttling in their cars to Woolworths in Century City or Claremont, dreaming about Leo the wild man who disappeared into the arid north. He read the letters then burned them. We would sit around the fire and watch flakes of their ash pirouette above the flames, borne high against the night sky on the fire’s thermals, then take their place among the stars. It was February, high summer, and the gold axe of sun struck relentlessly down. Helene roared up in her bakkie one afternoon. The ragged angle she parked it at told me all I needed to know. “There’s been a complaint,” Helene said, before she even got to our door. “What about?” “The mother with the family you took out yesterday. She said Leo leered at her.” I tried to remember the family: a woman, a man, two adolescent children, the usual quadrille. They had been Europeans from Germany or Holland. The children were held rapt by Leo’s stories of the giraffe that once cantered over these plains, 500 years ago. She leaned on the lintel of the bottom section of the Dutch door. “I’ve got no complaint with you. For Christ’s sake, you’re not even his girlfriend.” She dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry. I know it’s not my place to say that.” I shook my head. “He’s not a leerer, if that’s even a word. He’s just alert. He’s responsible for everyone out there, as am I. That’s why he stares at them. Women are always misconstruing men’s interest.” Helene frowned, perhaps at the ‘misconstrued’. “You’re always different, you horse people.” I found Leo in Siegfried’s stall. “Why are you doing this? I thought we’d agreed you’d give it a rest.” “I am giving it a rest.” He was not a sarcastic person, yet his voice bit at the words. He avoided my eyes. “I just need to take the edge off – off my thoughts.” I leaned back into the hay net, the sharp ends of cut hay scraping my back, and looked into those droll green eyes of his. It occurred to me that after all this time he hadn’t apprehended who I was. He really might think I was one of the women who fell into his bed as if out of an automatic dispenser. “There’s no need to destroy our chances here.” A strange sideways movement appeared in Leo’s eyes. I had never seen it before: fluid, lizard-like. “I couldn’t live without you.” “I’m not your wife.” The hiss in the word. Leo heard it too, as if a snake had wormed its way into the stall, and recoiled. Helene gave us a reprieve. She liked us – liked us both, she was careful to say. She couldn’t see herself finding other horse people at short notice. In gratitude we spent two days cleaning out the stable from top to bottom. Winter came, a season of tilt-a-whirl days. We would start our early morning rides in goosedown jackets and gloves but by ten in the morning we’d be stripped down to singlets. Then August came again with spring on its back, bearing the cargo of flowers that carpet this bitter place for six weeks each year: Sneeuprotea, Blou Bergaster, Geel Perdekop, Geel Botterblom, Boegoe, Pienk Handjie. The land seemed to encourage us to stay in its raw, red extremity, the kiln heat, pomegranate sunsets, the wind singing through rough grass. We were riding out to the dam, a trip we did often. A man-made lake had been dredged to irrigate the citrus farms that stretched for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. Low, rain-heavy clouds rolled down from the north, all the way from Namibia. Our charges were uncumbersome – a family from Cape Town, the father a professor of history. They probably lived in Rondebosch or Newlands and attended the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens concerts every summer. The kids must have been taught how to ride, they had a good English seat – alert, commanding. Leo slipped into his back-up position at the rear. While the family looked at bustards through their binoculars the matriarch, a thin blonde woman, once an obvious beauty, now still fine-boned, her face hidden under a pink golf visor, came to ride abreast of me. “It’s so good to see a woman up front.” She flashed me a tight, shy smile. “You must be very confident out here.” “Thank you. I’ve been riding since I was a child.” She gestured to Leo atop Siegfried, who was looking fixedly behind the group, his back toward us. “Is he your husband?” “No, we’re friends – and business partners.” I don’t know why I slipped that in, an unnecessary revelation. “It must be dangerous, taking people out into the wilderness.” I liked to keep light-hearted with the tourists; the less they knew the better. “It’s a lot more relaxed than 73

 

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Land Rover Magazine 39

 

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