Before first consciousness – I think I must have imbibed an affinity with places off the beaten track – and horses. More than half-a-century on – I wouldn’t describe myself as traditionally horsey – because really it was just one horse I was ever truly, deeply, mad about.
My birthplace was Pensilva near Bodmin Moor – in a house reputedly haunted by a benevolent ghost called, Squire Pollard. My mother once saw him through the gaps in the old oak floorboards upstairs – he was sitting in the parlour below – drinking ale and puffing on a clay pipe. Another strange account was a dream my mother had before she ever stepped foot in the house. She dreamt of the exact door to the room that I was born in – only in her dream she saw the words ‘Morte Bar’ inscribed on the door. No wonder I was often referred to as a changeling child – especially as I was willful by nature with a tendency to scowl a lot!
At night wild ponies came down from the moor – and whinnied and galloped about just beyond the bottom of our garden. In the sixties – Pensilva was an isolated place to bring up a young family especially in contrast to Sussex where my parents and older siblings had moved from. Needless to say – my Mother always felt unease about the house where I was born – and it wasn’t long before they upped sticks again – and moved to Devon – the place where I grew up and have lived ever since.
Even though she’s long gone to horsey heaven – I often dream that we hack out together. It’s a wonderful ‘experience’ to awake from – like having all the fun of owning a horse but without the expense or hard work that goes into looking after a horse – not that Jessie was ever – EVER hard work – she was a complete joy and I still miss her warm breath and gentle ways. I even dream that I can smell her – that sweet cocktail of sweat and leather – and hay. Not surprisingly there are lots of places roundabout that bring back memories of our jaunts together – old haunts that we revisit in my dreams like it was yesterday – all bar one that is.
Only a few days ago – whilst enjoying a night ramble – I suddenly had an urge to take a series of photographs of an entrance to a road ‘unsuitable for motors’ that we used to ride up – gallop up – at full pelt to the high ridge…I’ve passed this lane entrance many times ‘since’ but never have I had the want to photograph it – because all the pictures of that bright, springlike afternoon are in my head – not able to be shared here or anywhere – because they don’t exist in photographic form. They wouldn’t be appropriate anyway – too graphic.
The relationship that developed between us was something special. Jessie was a living, breathing Black Beauty – definitely more human than horse. Some might say that’s putting an anthropomorphic spin on things – but it is true. I trusted her with every fibre of my being – I never had cause to wear a hat when out on her – and besides I enjoyed the wind in my hair as much as she did. We understood each others thoughts – and communicated freely. I can’t really put into words how one actually talks ‘horse’ – but we were on the same frequency from day one.
On a long rein, I’d often let her take me for a ride…
On the 25th February 1998 – she took me to the road ‘unsuitable for motors’ – a forgotten ‘road’ off the beaten track. We’d been there on other occasions – to enjoy the freedom of a good gallop up its zig-zag course. Jessie, when given the choice – usually preferred to go on a more leisurely outing where she could stop and nibble at the Devon hedgerows and graze the grass verges; ours was an easy-going relationship – where her enjoyment was of equal importance. On this particular day – she was on a mission – she didn’t even try to snatch a mouthful from the hedge. Jessie when she wanted to – could go like the wind – and after an exhilarating gallop up the length of the track – we soon reached the plateau at the far end – a good place to ‘pull’ on the brakes before rejoining the metalled road.
Unusually – an ‘abandoned’ white car was facing us at the top of the lane. Slowly moving towards it – I became aware that a person was sitting inside – most likely enjoying an afternoon nap in the life-affirming sunshine. Suddenly I felt intrusive. In ‘slow-motion’ – over a distance of a hundred yards or so – I gradually perceived that the occupant – a women with her mouth and eyes wide open – was not sleeping – but dead. There was no immediacy for me to respond – she had visibly been inside her sun-drenched car too long; there was no need to dismount. Calmly and without stopping we walked-on by – relieved that life-saving intervention was not necessary – there was nothing to be done other than to raise an ‘alarm’ in the nearby sleepy hamlet. It was only as I glanced back – seeing the ‘paraphernalia’ attached to the exhaust of the car – that I realised that the person had taken their own life. What I saw that day – never touched me – due to my absolute belief in the protective power of Iron – Jessie’s four shoes had formed a barrier between us. A barrier between us and the ground – the car on the ground – and her inside it.
Her estranged husband – a farmer and part-time gravedigger – was supposed to find her when he checked his sheep that morning – but he never did check his sheep that day – because he had a funeral to attend and he’d been running late…
The ‘paraphernalia’ attached to the exhaust of the car had been ‘borrowed’ from the milking parlour to use in a final act of imploded anger – and revenge – over her disputed share of the farm and land. The cows were milked – but the sheep fended for themselves that morning – and probably for the rest of the day that unravelled.
The one image I retain – are her hands – forever stuck at ‘ten to two’ on the steering wheel – in a determined grip of self-will. Coincidentally about the time of day that we found her. I understand that she took her own life in the night – before the morning – before that fateful afternoon.
…but never – EVER – when I’m dreaming.