Paces – a short story

The following, a short story, is my first piece of written fiction for over 15 years. In it I continue to explore my more academic interest in the impact animals can have on humans, on their mental health and how animals’ lives can be so intertwined with ours. It also examines companion animals end-of-life issues. Human end-of-life is a hot topic currently but it is important to consider this for the animals in our lives, companion or otherwise.

 

Paces

It would have looked peculiar to anyone out early, passing along the village road that ran beside the field.  Had they glanced over the short hawthorn hedge they would have seen a small woman, slumped on the dew dampened grass, next to a prone horse.  The tidy and precise figure in her late forties was speaking gently to the animal.  Any passersby would not have seen the horse appear to register her and his breathing become slightly less laboured.

Libby could do nothing but sit, talk quietly to Dapper and lose herself in the memories. Watching his flanks she matched her breathing to his, aware that it was uneven.  As she spoke to him, memories of half her lifetime and most of his, came in to focus.  She reminded him of the many rides they had been on together.  The summer rides with the smell of wild honeysuckle that grew in the hedgerows along with the short-flowering dog roses.  The winter rides, often short, snatched around work and the available daylight, with Dapper delighting in dancing his way along bridle paths in the sharp, clean cold air.

Since buying Dapper Libby had become a one horse woman, she had hardly ever ridden another.  Now she wondered how many hundreds, if not thousands, of rides they had been on together.  During the years how many miles had they travelled, how many paces, across the open countryside afforded by being close to a network of bridleways, several large swathes of common land and access to a long hill range.

Libby could track most of her adult life thorough the days and seasons spent with Dapper, including her nursing career.  She would see to him around her shifts, worked as a ward nurse, as her career progressed to the role of managing a hectic acute admission mental health ward.  Winter late shifts gave her and Dapper the morning light and sufficient time to get out, even if it was just a walk and a brisk trot across the still, silent common land they would have to themselves.  In the summer, no matter what hours Libby needed to work, there had still been time to ride.  The evening visits after a late shift became something of a pleasure rather than a chore.  She would sit on an upturned bucket next to Dapper as he ate his feed, the solid regular chewing soothing away the stresses of the day, allowing Libby to wind down.  Occasionally raising his head, Dapper would drop small pieces of feed in her hair.

Dapper had a kind and generous ear, listening to all her work problems.  In the early days it had been those tricky issues of finding confidence in her identity as a nurse and developing new therapeutic skills.  There were the difficulties of fitting in to a busy ward team and the emotional toil of the work with her patients.  The main tool Libby possessed to do the job was herself.  She used herself as a person to connect and engage with patients, build therapeutic relationships and empathise with their distress and pain.  She had to learn the fine balance of maintaining professional boundaries yet getting emotionally close to those she nursed, which could take its toll.

Her experience of horses had transferred to and supported her work, most markedly with those who had severe and enduring illnesses.  Patients admitted with bipolar disorder who, when manic would be highly restless, agitated and over active.  They often struggled to keep on track with their thoughts, becoming very distracted and distractible.  The excruciating experience of elevated mood, rather than evoking happiness, made sufferers unable to sleep, or to stay sufficiently focused for long enough to eat, or to even drink.  They could be highly irritable and angry, frustration sometimes moving them to tears.  People with psychosis struggled with their inner torment, their difficulty to connect with the world, and they often experienced a lack of motivation to undertake even the most basic activities of living.  Patients with severe anxiety or depression required from her a gentle confidence and an unrelenting hopefulness that things would improve.  All those admitted to the ward needed compassion, quiet kindness and understanding.

Owning Dapper helped Libby to understand agitated and distressed patients, to see each as an individual with strengths despite their difficulties.  Libby was able to approach them in the same way as she would Dapper when, during those early years, he was difficult, anxious and temperamental.  Just as she learnt with Dapper, Libby the nurse learnt to present as calm and confident, slowing her speech, lowering her tone of voice, being unhurried in her movements and regulating her breathing.

Libby developed the ability to be comfortable with silence, fighting the compulsion to anxiously say anything just to fill the gaps, instead responding to another living being by staying quiet, waiting and watching as she did every day with Dapper.  He taught her how to read body language and to watch for changes in another, a shift in posture, in movement, to observe if muscles were tense or relaxed.   Dapper taught her to tune in to the slightest alteration in him second by second, so much so that it became automatic, intuitive and transferred to her work with people.  She could not identify how and when this happened, it just did.  She wondered now, as she gently smoothed the bleached out, faded grey fur on his neck, whether she would have been a different and probably a less skilled nurse if she had not had this old horse in her life.

Over the years Libby and Dapper developed into a team, with both able to read and respond to the other without conscious thought or deliberate attention.  The steady pattern of routine, of always undertaking tasks in the same way, of seeing Dapper at least twice a day, no matter what, become an important core to her life, a comforting rhythm that was ever present for the past twenty-eight years.  Like most people who owned horses, Libby moaned about being tied to the responsibilities of morning and evening checks, feeds, hay, picking up muck, grooming and, in recent years, of giving medication.  Now Libby watched as his head rested heavily on the short grazed grass, his breathing shallow and too fast.  She should feel guilty for having those past thoughts but rationalised that they were a part of the responsibility of owning a horse.  Most horse owners probably thought similarly at times, but Libby hoped that she would not remember her thoughts sometime in the future and regret them.

Libby wondered if she would look back and agonise about not having spent more time with Dapper, not staying for an extra five minutes while he finished his feed, but instead rushing off to work and leaving him to it.  The days when it had been too hot or too cold, the essential jobs done, and she had quickly left to get back to the air conditioning or the heating of the car.  The routine of owning a horse, the day-in, day-out pattern of their life together, made Libby unthinkingly accept Dapper’s presence in her life, just as a long married couple might take each other for granted.

Like the start of many a relationship, it was exciting, scary and tricky when Libby bought him as a green six year old.  She had been toying with the idea of getting a horse for some months, planning to seriously look at buying one after the coming winter.  Several ponies in the past had filled her childhood and her heart.  Once qualified and settled in to her first staff nurse post, she had wanted to start riding again.  She had in mind a bright, neat chestnut, as shiny as a fresh conker and well schooled, who would help her to regain her confidence as a horsewoman and with whom she could have some fun.

It was autumn when her friend Jane suggested she should see the horse at the small yard where her own horse was kept.

‘Go on, what is there to lose? You are going to have to start looking at horses if you plan to buy one.”’

‘I’ll look after winter,’ Libby said, ‘not now.’ 

‘Just come and have a look at him,’ Jane had insisted.

Eventually Libby had given in and gone to look but she was unimpressed with what she saw.  There he had been, standing in the middle of a rough paddock with his head up, on alert.  He was a stodgy looking cob and evidently very unfit.  He had the dark grey of youth that changed suddenly to smart white socks on his legs, with a clean, sharp definition that made it look as if his legs didn’t really belong to him, as if they had been borrowed.  One walled eye gave him a permanently surprised, slightly shocked, look. 

‘He’s not the right type or the right colour and he is unschooled – I need something I can just get on and ride without any faff,’ Libby said, ‘and what sort of idiotic name is Dapper?’

What did strike her however, were the bits of Dapper’s history that Jane knew.  As usual, a personal history engaged Libby, made her curious and keen to understand the individual, be it human or horse.

‘Dapper’s mum was a Connemara brought over from Ireland by a local dealer,’ Jane said as they started to walk across the paddock towards him.  ‘She was sold to a rough and ready chap who was somewhat surprised to find the mare was in foal.’  The dealer was contacted and he confirmed that an Arab stallion had been at his yard for several months around the same time as the mare.  Consequently, quietly and alone one morning, the mare had produced Dapper.

‘So, he hasn’t had the best start in life.  He was broken, not very well, and then sold to a local girl who was unable to manage him and so he had been passed on and then on.  Not the best for any horse!’ Jane added, ‘I think his legs do give him a rather dapper look, don’t you?’

A succession of young women had found Dapper difficult and had given up on him when he frightened them with his behaviour, some of which had bordered on the dangerous.  Sitting in the field with Dapper, now an old man with none of that sharpness of youth left, Libby wondered what would have become of him if she had not bought him.  His passing from owner to owner, person to person, would have continued, instability causing him to become more anxious and difficult.  It was very likely that he would have ended up in a market somewhere, being sold to the meat man, before even Galvayne’s Grooves appeared on his teeth.

Following Jane’s persuasion, Libby reluctantly agreed to have a ride on him, thinking that it would do no harm and would put an end to Jane’s pestering.   Dapper proved to be green, unbalanced and unschooled with no ability to work on the bit.  He was unruly and difficult and as soon as Libby settled in the saddle he quickly moved off and then skipped unexpectedly sideways.  In that moment Libby immediately knew that he was the one.  There was something about his movement, his paces, even though they were uncoordinated, that was absolutely right and resonated with her.

And that was it.  Libby bought him.  A raw six year old that had not been looked after or treated as kindly as a young horse deserved.  He had little to recommend him, especially as he had built a reputation in the locality of being difficult and at times un-rideable.

Libby had not had him vetted, something she would never dream of doing now she was older and wiser.  However, she had been lucky and he had been sound and fine once he had been thoroughly wormed.  Looking back it seemed as if those decisions had been made by someone else, a young and unwise girl, and that the wound up, spooky horse of then could not be the animal now lying immobile beside her.  They were both older, different, but that time seemed so close, as if it was merely several years, not decades, that had passed.

Within two days of seeing Dapper and the impulsive decision to buy him, Libby negotiated a price with his owner and found a small DIY yard to keep him.  Mill Farm seemed perfect, with grazing, stabling and an outside ménage.  It was when Libby foolishly decided to walk Dapper in-hand to Mill Farm, only a mile or so away across the local common from where he was being kept, that she discovered he did not lead well.  The young horse decided to shy at everything that moved; every leaf, rabbit and squirrel on the way.  Libby was desperately trying to hold on to Dapper as he danced, the Arab in him becoming very evident.  As he flicked his feet out, hooves extravagantly floating above the ground, head and tail held high, she tripped up.  This had really spooked him and he had tried to take off.  In that moment Libby knew she could not let go, aware of the road that ran through the middle of the common, and that should he get loose she very probably would not catch him again.  For some distance Libby slid as Dapper dragged her over the rough and bumpy ground.  Libby hung on to the lead rein until her hands stung, burning with the friction of rope against skin.  Eventually he stopped and Libby scrambled to her feet.  As they both stood, breathing heavily, eyeing each other, they had begun to come to an understanding.  Tightly grasping the rope in her still smarting hands Libby again started to lead him and they began to find a way of walking together, to attune, to synchronise human and equine paces.

One evening after the hot haze of a late summer day, riding along the hill range next to the common, their relationship changed.  They had been taking advantage of the cooler air on the top of Raged Stone Hill when, without warning, a crashing thunderstorm whipped up right above them, the sky suddenly angry and black, lightening throwing the surrounding hillside into sharp and terrible relief.  A short lull and then the rain started, soaking them both within seconds.  Libby had been frightened, feeling so exposed on the hill, but Dapper had been calm and, keeping his head and his footing, had got her down quickly and then safely home.  Steadily and surely he picked his way down the hillside by the shortest route, the Arab and Connemara in him providing sure footedness on the loose gravel moving under the small streams of water.  Libby’s trust of the horse developed and deepened and she found that there was little now to faze her when she was out with him.

They stayed for some years at Mill Farm, a small yard with around ten acres of paddocks.  On the surface it was a nice idyllic set-up, owned by a middle aged couple.  The wife, Mel, had her own horse, as did their daughter, and there were four DIY liveries.  Mel had welcomed her when she arrived with Dapper. 

When Libby explained she had just bought Dapper, Mel said, ‘Ah! He’s new out of the box then!’  It was much later that this struck Libby as more significant than she realised at the time – a telling indicator of an attitude to the horses.

The farm was nestled in a slight dip at the edge of the common land. Once tacked up, Dapper and Libby could be straight out on to open riding with no need for road work, definitely an important factor in those early days when Dapper was so unreliable and often unable to walk in a straight line.  This significant advantage was one of the reasons, Libby now reflected, that she and Dapper had stayed there so long.

They had settled in, quickly becoming part of the yard community with its ups and downs, although Libby was treated as the new girl and as someone who lacked horse knowledge.  Libby had accepted the nit picking and the slightly pointed comments, disguised as kind information giving.  She had instead focussed on the benefits of being on a yard.  Someone was almost always on site and there was the genuine and kind advice from the knowledgeable and sensible Martha.  Libby also learnt the downside of yard life with its minor squabbles.  One annoyance was the obsessively tidy Dee, who would clean and brush the yard, even when it was not required, and then manage to make everyone else feel bad for not doing it.  Dee’s unnerving habit of tidying away other people’s kit and tack without invitation or request was one of the yard jokes, but it was also exceptionally wearing.

Being utterly heartbroken was another reason that Libby had stayed at Mill longer than she should have done. It had coincided with that dreadful time when she could not contemplate more change, more upheaval.  No matter how Libby had been feeling, Dapper’s solid presence had got her through all the heart ache and despair of her divorce.  On the worst days Libby had wanted to pull the duvet over her head, to shut out pain in her heart, but she would have to get up and feed Dapper.  Once up, she would reason that if she could get to Mill Farm and see to Dapper, she would then be able to go in to work.  And so, one step at a time, one pace after another, Libby had got through each day.

The horse lying in front of her had now lost muscle as he aged, his withers and back bone becoming more pronounced.  His rump, once rounded in a happy cobby way, looked like it had sunk in on itself.  Back then Dapper had forced structure into her day, given her a tenuous framework on which to grasp, preventing her from completely drowning in misery.  Dapper had gently taught her that she could face anything that life put in her way.  His solid company gave her companionship when she could not face other people.

It was Dapper that provided Libby with the first small moments when she forgot her troubles and slowly these moments extended to minutes and hours.  Riding him, discovering bridleways and paths that they had not ridden before, finding new views together and holding him back to canter when he was insistent he wanted to gallop, had all helped to stop her intrusive and repetitive thoughts.  When there was a break from the ruminations, the pain in her heart reduced.  Now, as her companion lay with his eyes closed, Libby realised that Dapper was focused on his own pain and it was now he who was shutting out the world.  She felt an overwhelming rush of gratitude for all the times this horse had helped her come through difficulties and anguish.

Libby’s thoughts returned to Mill Farm and that, at the time, she had not realised how much the place had fenced her in, stifled her, until the events of a still, hot summer’s evening.  She had been picking up muck in the paddock, the rhythmic thump of a hay bailer audible from the neighbouring farm.  Dapper and Mel’s large bay gelding cob were stomping about, trying to find a spot with the least flies and Dapper wandered in to the open barn on the far side of the paddock for some shade.  A sudden noise made Libby look up from her muck buckets to see Dapper cornered in the barn with the bay horse repeatedly turning his back to the grey and lashing out with his hind legs.

‘Whoa! Stop! Stop it you!’  Instinctively, Libby started shouting as she ran towards the barn and her raised voice sufficiently startled the bay for him to pause in his assault.  Enough time for Dapper to lunge forward, squeeze past him and out in to the paddock to stand shaking and terrified.  A gash to Dapper’s front leg was bloody, a sticky rivulet livid, first against grey leg and then white sock, as it tricked downwards.  Several lumps were appearing on his chest where other kicks had landed.

This incident in itself had been shocking and upsetting, but it was what had happened after that completely stunned Libby.  Hearing the shouts, Mel had come on the yard as Libby was pulling Dapper out of the paddock, away from the bay and on to hard standing.  As Libby started to clean Dapper’s wound and ran cold water over the swollen areas, she briefly told Mel about what she had witnessed.  Mel was casual and off-hand, insinuating that Libby was making a fuss about nothing.  Libby told her that she did not want Dapper and the bay sharing a paddock together again.

Mel said, ‘Oh, for goodness sake! Stop being so dramatic, you’re over reacting.’

When Libby uncharacteristically persisted, Mel said, ‘We haven’t got the space to rotate the grazing and accommodate everyone’s slightest whim.’

‘I’m sorry but I cannot let Dapper be put in that situation again,’ Libby said, quietly sticking to her guns.

‘I really don’t understand you – it’s not as if he is anything special!’

‘Mel, he may not be anything special, but to me he is very special.’

There and then Libby gave Meg notice that she would be moving Dapper.  She stood firm insisting that, in the mean time, he was not to be put in with the bay.  Within the week Libby had managed to find grazing on a local farm which had no other horses.  That rushed move, so stressful and anxiety provoking, had brought Mike in to her life just when she was adamant that she was not looking for anything else in her life, other than Dapper and work.

Once she moved Dapper,  Libby was without others rely on and solely responsible to get to the farm to see to Dapper twice a day, every day, no matter what she was doing or working.  She had to drag herself out of bed when she was ill, to check, feed and water him, but this responsibility was compensated by the freedom she now had.

Keeping Dapper alone negated the risk of him being beaten up by a field companion but Libby was acutely aware that, as herd animals, horses need companions.  When the farmer asked if his nephew, Mike, could run his elderly ram in the horse’s field she tentatively agreed.  The horse and the appropriately named Willie the ram quickly formed a strong bond and spent their time grazing together or sleeping under the cover of the wide boughed oaks that bordered two sides of their regular field.  On hot, fly-ridden days Willie took to standing under Dapper for shade and to gain the full effect of an accurately flicked tail.

Gradually Libby took responsibility for checking Willie twice a day on her visits to Dapper. She was happy to do this, but when Mike dropped by several times a week Libby assumed he did not trust her minimal knowledge of sheep.  Libby thought little of it, considering it to be mere coincidence, when his visits often coincided with the times when she was at the farm.  When the winter came, with early hard frosts followed by snow, Mike helped her change rugs, put hay put for Dapper and Willie and break the thick ice on the water trough.  She was grateful for his help and for his quiet company on the dark evenings.  Libby told herself that he was being kind and helpful in exchange for her taking care of Willie through the late summer and autumn.  When Mike did not show up for a week she became worried, found herself looking for his dark blue Land Rover, and discovered that she missed his company.

Libby was picking out Dapper’s feet one evening when Mike eventually showed up.  She immediately saw that something was wrong, his tall frame looked gaunt from the weight he had lost, his face taught with worry and his usually clear, sharp blue eyes clouded.  She straightened up, letting the nearside hoof go, and watched over Dapper’s back as Mike walked across the yard towards her.  It was then that Libby realised how little she knew about him.  With a shock she was suddenly aware how selfish she had been.  Having been so taken up her own problems, so closed down to everything and everyone, she had not really, truly seen Mike as a person in his own right.  They had spent time leaning on the old solid wooden field gate many evenings, talking generally about their work, the countryside and wildlife that surrounded them, but Libby had not registered just how much Mike had become a part of her daily routine until he was missing from it.  She had treated him like one of the oak trees, reliable, always there, to give shade and shelter from the elements.

‘Mike?’ she said quietly, as he got close to where she stood.

As they faced each other over Dapper’s broad back, Mike met her concerned gaze and Libby felt that she was looking at him for the first time.  All three, woman, man, and horse, stood seemingly frozen in time.

‘Mike?’ she said, ‘What is it?’

Placing one hand on Dapper’s neck Mike absently ruffled the horse’s mane and the contact with another being seemed to steady, to loosen him.  He told it simply, as if he was reciting someone else’s story. ‘I’ve got two children, girls, Freya is nearly ten and Jen is eleven.  They live….they lived, with my ex in Norfolk.’

Having started, he now seemed unable to stop. ‘I get to see them whenever I can but they are growing up and they want to spend their weekends with friends, not their boring dad.’

Mike took a breath and then said, his voice becoming so quiet that Libby moved forward to hear him, ‘Their mother, Jo, was on her way to a meeting.  There was freezing fog on the motorway, a multiple car pile-up and several people killed. Jo was one of them.’

Both his hands were now resting on Dapper as his voice trailed off, his shoulders sagging.  Libby automatically reached over the horse’s back and took hold of Mike’s hand, knowing that no words, nothing she could say, would make it better.  Without looking up Mike took a grip on Libby’s hand with his own, ‘And now, I need to look after the girls.’ 

Then, taking a deep breath, he told her the rest.  He had been living at Jo’s house in Norfolk to look after and support his children as the arrangements were made to bury their mother.  He was going back to Norfolk that evening and would move to be with them, at least until they had finished the school year.  Clasping Libby’s hand tighter in both of his, he fell silent and they stood, not speaking, hands held over the back of Dapper who now shifted his weight to one back leg, rested the other, and his head drooping, began to doze.

So it had begun, a relationship she had not expected, was not looking for and one that challenged them from the outset as Mike moved hours driving time away to be with his girls.

‘I’ll look after Willie, if you trust me to,’ she had said to him that evening in the yard, half joking, and it was the first time that Mike, albeit briefly, smiled.

The winter turned in to an early but wet spring.  Libby missed Mike more than she could put in to words.  She wanted to share with him the sights and sounds of spring as the weather improved and everything became vivid in so many different shades of green.  The birds began to pair up.  The rooks in the oak trees were busy choosing exactly the right sticks for nest building, then coming each day when she groomed Dapper, waiting until they could hop across the yard and stuff their beaks with his fur and carry it off to line luxury nests.

Mike came back when he could, to check on his house.  At Easter he brought the girls to stay for a week.  He arranged to bring them to the farm to meet Libby, having already told her that Freya and Jen would be moving to live in his home when their school broke up for the summer holidays.  Two pale faced girls, slightly built but tall for their ages, had reluctantly got out of the Land Rover when prompted by Mike.  They stared at their town-shoe shod feet when he introduced them to Libby.

Finding herself at a loss about what to say to these two unhappy children, Libby suggested ‘Come and meet Dapper, my horse?’  They hesitated, then, without meeting her eyes, nodded and so Libby went and slipped Dapper’s head collar on, attached the lead rope and brought him down from the field to tie him up on the yard.  Instinctively Libby fetched his grooming kit and rather than working to engage the girls in conversation she started brushing Dapper.  As she talked to him gently she noticed the girls move a bit closer and, for the first time, begin to take some interest.  Not knowing how to engage with these sad and silent children, Libby thought desperately about how she might get them to come out of their shells.  Having children was not something that she had really contemplated and a relationship with a man who had his own children had definitely not been on her radar.  Until now.  Suddenly, with a strength that completely took her by surprise, she felt an overwhelming need to get this right, to make it all tolerable for these two girls who were so hurt.

Sensing that the harder she worked to get them to talk the less they were likely to do so, Libby decided to use the same approach she would use to try and catch small wily ponies.  Libby busied herself, waiting to see if they would come to her out of curiosity and sensed their attention moving from the floor to Dapper.  Jen took a tentative step, one pace forward, watching what Libby was doing.  Judging her timing, Libby handed Jen a body brush, one that was small enough for her slim hand, and demonstrated how to use it on Dapper’s coat. At first Jen dabbed at the fur but then, watching Libby out of the corner of her eye, she started to copy the smooth strokes.

In time the girls moved with Mike to his house and he and Libby began a slow, gentle, unhurried relationship.  It was not easy; the girls were grieving and needed to acclimatise to a new area, a different school, and to make new friends.  Mike was getting used to being a full time parent to two hurt and challenging adolescent girls.  His focus was on them and Libby got what little was left over.  When Mike and Libby made the decision, after months of discussing it, for her to move in to his house, Jen and Freya had alternated between sullenly ignoring her and shouting and banging doors.  The girls, usually sulky and occasionally hostile, made it clear that they did not want to share their father with anyone.  Once, Jen said to Libby, almost spitting the words, ‘You’re not our mum and you will never be.’

Dapper became Libby’s respite from the tensions at home, he provided her with an escape and time to think.  Libby discovered that managing difficult and challenging behaviour at work was different to being the brunt of it at home.  So, when Jen unexpectedly asked to come to the farm with her one afternoon Libby had to swallow her feelings of irritated disappointment before she said, ‘Of course you can, but put on your jeans and some flat shoes.’

Jen learnt to groom Dapper and soon she was going with Libby twice a day, making herself useful, taking on tasks.  Brushing out the horse’s light, fine tail and mane became her responsibility.  Dapper had never looked so well turned out and he stood stock still for the girl when she tentatively started grooming him.  Jen progressed to tacking Dapper up, making sure that the saddle was sitting in the right place, stretching his legs out to ensure that the girth would not pinch him and that the fur was lying flat under it.  Libby started to leave Jen to groom Dapper, using poo-picking as a valid excuse, when she realised that Jen was having long conversations with the horse.  Jen always seemed to be less reserved, less closed off after spending time with Dapper.

Jen’s birthday, the first without her mum, was difficult.  Libby gave Jen her present the day after, careful to not make a tough day more completed.  The gift of jodhpurs, hard hat and boots were opened, tried on and put to use that afternoon when Jen had her first lesson on Dapper.

Now, sitting in the field, Libby realised that it was not just her memories that were wrapped up with this old, tired out horse.  Those two girls, one now at university and the other about to start her training as a veterinary nurse, had memories too.  Dapper had helped them through their grief and the many transitions they made from town kids to country youngsters.

Libby was jolted out of her memories by the sound of the chain being undone and the field gate opening.  Rachel, her vet of many years, quietly let herself in.  When Libby had phoned, Rachel was calm as always, saying she would be there within the hour.

Now Rachel walked towards them, Libby still sitting on the spring grass, the old horse lying prone and motionless beside her.  The dew was gone, dried by the strengthening June sun. The day was moving on.  Libby could not hold back time as it shifted toward something she struggled to contemplate.  Libby knew this was the end, the end of routines, day in, day out.  The end of the most significant friendship she had for over half her life.

Libby understood the decision was inevitable now; he could not go on.  She knew that Rachel would have put the syringe, the needle and vial of medication in the pocket of her fleece.

Libby wondered how far it was from the gate to where she and Dapper were, how many few precious moments she still had with him, how soon it would be before he would be gone. Libby measured the final moments of Dapper’s life in those forty or so paces that took Rachel to get to them from the gate. 

Libby felt abruptly overwhelmed with a raw grief that hung immense and heavy in her chest, and in her stomach.  She found tears were silently dripping onto the almost white fur which still had a few dapples visible in the dusty coat.

She heard Rachel’s quiet voice,

‘Hello old man. You look like you’ve had enough.’

 

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