The room was white. So white it made Annabel feel sick. Lying on her bed she was saturated with boredom. She had been saturated with coke, now she was saturated with boredom. More like a vacuum actually. Sometimes over the last six weeks she had been able to immerse herself in the emptiness of boredom, floating there: a rock suspended in space. More often, though, she had felt restless, angry with the nurses and family that kept here at the clinic “for her own good”, and at seventeen she had no choice in the matter.
She picked over the carrion of her old life: the squat, Jonty, parties, festivals, drugs, sex. It had been wall to wall fun compared to the rehab clinic her parents had locked her up in. For once they had swallowed their bitterness, bile born of an acrimonious divorce, and together contributed their various parenting skills to ruining her life (as usual). In her father’s case this was money. He had paid for the clinic and diverted her allowance (£800 a month) into a bank account that her mother now controlled. Her mother’s contribution was time. Pretty much constant supervision in fact. Her mother visited her in the clinic every day she was permitted and if Annabel refused to see her, she would sit stoically in the waiting room until visiting time was over, hoping, Annabel imagined, to provoke deep feelings of guilt and remorse in her daughter.
Today, Annabel had allowed her mother to visit, and her mother told her that she was to be discharged in three days time. Her initial euphoria at this news was swiftly drenched when her mother firmly informed her that her new home was to be with her, at the old family home in Hackney, London. This was clearly a cynical attempt to control her life, thinly wrapped in the soft tissue of love and Annabel was swift to shoot down her mother’s attempts to convince her otherwise.
When the day came, Jon and Sadie, Annabel’s father and mother, collected her in Jon’s 4x4. Sadie only ever rode a bicycle, but for once she had to concede that only a 4x4 with tinted windows would do: especially when collecting your drug addict daughter from rehab. In the car, the strained conversation petered out to a thick silence, and they were all relieved when an hour later they pulled up outside a row of terraced houses, some with neat hedges or yucca plants in the front garden, and some with broken furniture packed tightly behind the fence. There was an awkward moment when Sadie asked Jon in, an insulting invitation for an old lion to survey his former kingdom, from which he had been so cruelly exiled. He politely declined and deposited his sulky daughter and her mother (he would never understand her) on the pavement, driving away with a sigh of relief, his duty fulfilled.
Annabel followed her mother into the house, too despondent to protest any more. The house was slightly cluttered but had clearly been tidied for her arrival. Her last visit had been at Christmas (it was now nearly Easter). She had stayed for vegetarian Christmas dinner and one night, which was the absolute maximum amount of time for which she could assume the role of daughter. Her mother’s naivety really was mind-blowing, she thought, as she regarded the statue of Buddha that had pride of place in the hall. When Sadie had been mugged once on the way home from work, Annabel had felt almost glad, vindicated that everyone in the world was not worthy of love and compassion (her mother’s precious gospel). Much to her annoyance though, Sadie had quickly and unwaveringly forgiven her attackers, refusing even to press charges.
“Would you like some lunch darling?”
“Ham sandwich on white would be nice”, Annabel poured every ounce of vitriol onto the comment, knowing full well that her vegetarian, wholemeal mother would never have such a thing. Sadie just smiled a little sadly and got some cheese from the fridge.
The days ticked by unbearably slowly for Annabel, so much so that after a week; she began to talk to her mother out of sheer boredom. Also, in the back of her mind she had a plan to feign her full reconciliation to a life of mediocrity, in order to sooner escape, £800 allowance intact, back to the teenage theme park of her former life.
One day, over dinner, her mother made a rather surprising proposal:
“How would you like to try horse riding?”
Annabel could think of nothing more ridiculous than herself on the back of a horse and laughed out loud. After a couple more days of hanging around her mother’s house however, even the smell of horses seemed preferable to patchouli so she reluctantly put on some old leggings and her cowboy boots and set off with her mother on their bikes across Hackney Marshes.
The football pitches of the East Marsh were dotted with occasional groups of people and dogs, dwarfed by the vast expanse of grass and the giant headless robots that towered above them, carrying electricity to Hackney residents. It was a windy April day and the sunlight was young and sharp, playing on the white wings of the wheeling seagulls and making them shine like silver blades, their calls cutting the air above the faint, low rumble of traffic.
Annabel followed her mother along the side of the canal then they skirted the marshes until they reached the red bridge that crossed the River Lea into the nature reserve. Despite herself, Annabel felt exhilarated by the bike ride; the wind cleared her head, whipping her long auburn hair in and out of her face as the sun gently warmed her milky skin, melting her cares away.
They stopped on the bridge to catch their breath, although only Annabel was panting with pink cheeks, her mother being used to the exercise. Still on their bikes, they held onto the safety rail of the bridge and looked down into the fast flowing water. The bridge was a bizarre structure that had two large semi-circles of red metal extending horizontally but at a slight tilt to the left and right like wings. They were supposed to prevent accidents but had the additional purpose of providing a canvas for local graffiti artists and were covered in tags. Below, in the river, the reeds bent this way and that like green hair, as the water gently pulled them with its flow. The patterns they made were hypnotic and Annabel felt a twinge of regret for the loss of her old life. A small voice inside her head was saying that even if she could go back now, it would not be the same – something was lost. This bitter capsule of reality burst in her mouth: her parents had ruined her life forever. She turned to Sadie who was staring at the water, lost in her own thoughts and felt a surge of hate.
“Do you really think that riding a stupid horse is going to make everything ok? Going to fix your broken daughter? Well it’s not. You and that loser that calls himself my father have messed me up forever so why don’t you just let me go and self-destruct? Then I’d be no more trouble.”
Sadie looked at her daughter’s beautiful, angry face and was unable to stop the tears that sprang to her eyes. She tried to form the right thing to say but it was impossible, and the seconds ticked by like hours as her thoughts ran frantically down the blind alleys of her mind, trying to remember how to communicate with this young woman she loved so much but could no longer help. In the end she turned away and cycled on towards the stable, blinded by guilty tears.
Annabel was also crying, her 17yr old brain revolving around the disturbing truth that nothing stays the same. The dark, flowing river looked tempting for a moment, as she imagined her mother’s devastated face if she saw her daughter floating Ophelia-like in the water. A surge of tenderness tore at her heart and her anger was washed away by forgiveness. Whatever mistakes her mother had made there was never any doubt of her love. Determined to make up for her cruel speech, Annabel followed the path in the direction her mother had gone.
After navigating a gate, she freewheeled down a gentle hill, winding between bushes loaded with creamy May blossom which fluttered to the ground in gentle flurries when the wind blew and carpeted the edges of the path with confetti. This all went unnoticed by Annabel, however, as her eyes searched ahead for her mother. She felt a rising panic, similar to her 5yr old self’s fear when she had run away in the supermarket and immediately regretted it. All that mattered now was that she found Mum, and she looked desperately for Sadie’s red sweater and blonde hair ahead, but there was nothing.
At a junction in the path there was a signpost for Hope In The Valley stables to the right. Through the trees she could see some paddocks with horses in and a series of squat buildings with a tree-lined avenue leading to the entrance. As she cycled closer she saw with relief a flash of red as Sadie waved at her from the front of the building. They hugged and half an hour later Annabel was riding a large, brown horse.
As spring turned to summer Annabel spent more and more time at the stables, and after a few weeks Sadie let her go by herself, although she still kept a close eye on her. The horses seemed to calm Annabel and she found their quirky characters endlessly interesting and challenging. She had a natural talent for riding, but what she loved just as much was just being around the horses. Their beauty and strength drew her respect and when they showed her affection, or made her laugh, she felt special and privileged.
One horse in particular fascinated her. Her name was Gwyn, and she was a fairly recent addition to the stable. She was a nervous mare who was extremely unpredictable and the staff suspected she had been the victim of some ill treatment in the past. One day, she would allow herself to be tacked up and the next she would pull away from the grooms as if terrified of them, rolling her eyes and laying her ears flat back against her head.
At first Gwyn wouldn’t allow Annabel anywhere near her. In fact, the only person she would tolerate in her stall was a groom called Andreas. Annabel would watch Andreas as he soothed the nervous horse, always so patient and calm. Annabel had never heard him speak and he kept mostly his own company, seeming pleasant, but shy. She knew that he was from somewhere in Eastern Europe and some of the other volunteers (all girls) said that he had gypsy blood in him and was a horse whisperer. Annabel laughed at their wild speculation and dismissed it as schoolgirl fantasy, but couldn’t help wondering about him herself.
The more she watched him with the mare, the more intrigued she became with their remarkable relationship. Andreas sometimes allowed her to help him, although he mostly communicated by nodding and smiling, but she did slowly get closer to Gwyn, until one day the horse allowed her to groom her and lead her out to the paddock without Andreas.
Walking with Gwyn down through the avenue of trees to the bottom paddock, Annabel felt a deep sense of contentment. She looked around her at marshes beyond the field, which had sprung to life in the last couple of months with a profusion of grasses, flowers, insects and birds. Every morning and evening, as she cycled to and from Hope In The Valley, she noticed the streams and river were now decorated with yellow iris and sedate bulrushes that grew taller than a man. Children who had collected frogspawn earlier in the year came back in red wellies and shorts to release the little frogs they had nurtured back into the water and pairs of birds fussed around their young, high in the trees as they squealed for their food. Her daily trips to the stable made her a part of this natural rhythm, and she was carried along on the tide of the changing season. Each day that passed peeled away another layer of her old, chaotic life and new hope was born and flourished among the tall grasses and new leaves.
Annabel’s dedication to the stable paid off in more ways than one, in that she was allowed, with one of the grooms, to ride the horses out on the nature reserve. A group of them usually went out on a hack in the evening, when the air was cooler and there were fewer people around, walking the horses in a line along the bridle path. One Sunday evening, she led her horse out to see only Andreas waiting for her on Gwyn.
“Just us today? Where’s everyone else?”
Andreas smiled and shrugged, enigmatic as ever. Annabel didn’t press the point, as she was secretly glad to have him all to herself for once, hoping she could get to know him better. She mounted her horse and they headed down the avenue of trees at a lazy walk, soon turning onto the bridle path.
In the warm, treacly air little clouds of midges buzzed, suspended in bubbles. The noise of the horses’ hooves on the path was regular and rhythmical, although each sound was slightly different: a crunch on gravel, a dull thud on earth, a soft thump on grass. It set a pace that seemed to slow the passage of time, the two horses and their riders in single file moving down the narrow path in the oily heat as if in a dream, stooping occasionally to avoid low branches. After a couple of hundred yards, the path opened out onto the marshes, becoming wide enough for Annabel to draw alongside Andreas and Gwyn. They rode in an easy silence, the grasses waving gently as the riders passed, bowing as gracefully as courtiers, and the leaves in the great trees rustled, whispering to the horses and their riders in a thousand voices as ancient as the earth.
Annabel felt an excitement rising in her stomach, up to her throat and down through her limbs as her hips rocked gently with the movement of the horse. When she was a child, she had loved to read fairy tales, completely losing herself in their magical forests and dark castles. How she had longed then to ride on a white horse next to a handsome prince and have the kind of adventures that always ended happily ever after. Those childish daydreams had made her feel as she did now, and the realisation was making her head spin. She turned slowly to the left and looked over at Andreas’ face, serene as always, a still, cool pool of water into which she longed to dive and doscover what lay beneath. She half opened her mouth to speak but didn’t want to break the spell so they continued as they were, joining the quiet of the early evening.
Upon their return to the stable, Andreas dismounted first and held her horse as she swung her leg over its back and jumped to the ground.
“I’m glad it was just us today,” he said.
His voice, so unexpectedly close, made her blush with pleasure, but she managed only to stammer, “me too” before he led the horses away.
Annabel cycled home with happiness spilling out of her like water from a leaky bucket, but it turned to shock as she saw a familiar figure waiting for her on the corner of her street. She felt a stab of anxiety when she realised it was Jonty, her ex-boyfriend, but she forced herself to dismiss it even though he looked angry.
“Where the hell have you been? You just left, no goodbye, no phone call, no email, nothing. We’ve been trying to get in touch with you. We were really worried.”
Jonty’s face was handsome in a child-like way and right now he reminded Annabel of a sulky adolescent.
“Nice to see you too.” She smiled at him, refusing to let him dispel the lingering tendrils of her earlier mood.
“Sorry if you were worried, but I had no choice in the matter. My parents came and packed me off to rehab. They took my phone and everything. There was no way I could have contacted you.”
“You could have just run away.” Jonty’s face began to soften and tears appeared in his eyes. “I couldn’t afford any food or anything. I was going to try to get clean, sort myself out, remember? But you left and my whole life fell apart. Thanks God I’ve found you again. When can you come home?”
Annabel felt the prising open of that familiar empty hole inside herself for the first time in weeks: the hole that longed to be filled with the substance of oblivion. A yearning for that metallic taste in the back of her throat, the smoke filling her lungs that was stronger than any other desire in the world.
Her hesitation riled Jonty. “What’s the matter? We not good enough for you now?”
Annabel replied hastily. She didn’t want a scene in the street. “Look, I just need some time to think yeah?” She held out a ten pound note. “You look like you could use a drink. Why don’t you treat yourself? Give me your number again and I’ll call you later.”
Jonty mumbled, “I don’t want your fucking money,” under his breath but took it anyway and Annabel wrote his number on a scrap of paper from her bag with her eyeliner pencil. As he walked away she breathed a sigh of relief.
The next day, her cousin came to stay. Nicky was like the older sister she had never had and Sadie had trusted her enough to allow her to take Annabel to the pub that evening. Nicky was full of questions and news and soon they were chatting like old times. The next day Annabel took Nicky to the stables for a ride and confided in her about her feelings for Andreas. Nicky agreed that he was gorgeous and from that moment on Annabel could think of nothing else, her admiration for him turning to a full-blown crush.
Nicky went home after staying for two weeks (a week longer than planned) and Annabel really missed her. The last fortnight has been the happiest time she could remember, but they had also conveniently distracted her from the phone call to Jonty that she had promised to make. She now knew she didn’t want to make that call, in fact, she wanted to ditch everything to do with her old life because all she wanted now was to be with Andreas. She put off and put off calling Jonty, and the scrap of paper with his number on fell from her dressing table to the floor where it was hoovered up by Sadie during one of her rare cleaning spells.
The summer languished on and Andreas and Annabel became good friends. He told her about his home in Serbia and his family in Belgrade, the scars of war still painfully visible as he grew up. He said he left because he was looking for something he didn’t think he could find there, but he still wondered whether he would find it in London. Annabel hoped that would soon change.
His voice was gentle, with a slight accent, and when he spoke it was as if the words had more meaning than if they were spoken by anyone else: almost as if he was singing without music. He was always calm, though sometimes distant. It was easy to see why he was so good with animals, which he said he trusted more than people.
One cloudy August morning, Annabel arrived early at the stables, about ten to seven. She sat outside, shivering a little in her thin shirt and jodhpurs, when she saw someone approaching from the same path she had come down. She immediately felt uneasy as most of the staff drove in down the main avenue rather than coming over the marshes as she did. The man was shuffling a bit but was definitely heading straight for her, and as he got closer she recognised Jonty. He looked terrible. It wasn’t so much his unkempt appearance as his posture that was disturbing. He was twisted and stooped, like an old man, so much so that she shrank back in horror as he approached. As he attempted to smile at her he revealed teeth that were brown and rotting, but it was not a smile with any friendship or warmth in it: it was full of malice. She guiltily remembered the phone call she had never made. This was her fault: how he must hate her now. She felt panic grip her but her only chance was to try to talk her way out of this, as he was now only a few feet away.
She tried to appear casual. “Jonty! What a surprise! How are you doing?”
“Yeah,” he croaked, ”good, good….um….I er… followed you. Not being weird or anything…. Just wanted to like… see you.” There was an awkward pause. “So how come you’re here then? What is this place? Some kind of farm?” Jonty sniffed and coughed, wiping his nose on the back of a dirty sleeve.
“No. It’s a riding school. I’m working here… well, volunteering.” Her voice sounded falsely cheerful and the words hung awkwardly between them. But Jonty didn’t appear to be listening and was looking around. Suddenly he took a step forward and met her eye.
“Why didn’t you call?” he whined, “You too good for me now huh? Look at you… so fucking fake. You left me; we had plans. I couldn’t even afford a fix when you went. I couldn’t get clean without help. I couldn’t even afford a smoke. We had plans; I’d be alright now but you left me and look what I’ve become.” His face crumpled with self-pity. “You left but you’re all right. Look at you. You look fuckin’ fantastic. I’m ill but you’re all right.”
Jonty’s voice was getting louder and louder as he worked himself up into a rage. Annabel tried to soothe him. “Calm down Jonty, it’s not like that. I want to help you out. I could get some cash together and you could get clean like you planned”. She fumbled desperately in her pockets and pulled out a note. “Here, look, take this for now.” She held out the twenty pound note to him just to try and get rid of him, but this time it wasn’t so easy. He snatched it from her hand and began screaming in her face, forcing her back against the locked door of the school.
“You think you can buy me, you think you’re so much better than me. You’re not and I’ll tell you what else: you owe me. We had plans and you’re my girlfriend but you just left me behind like so much shit on your shoes.”
Annabel could smell his stale breath and dirty clothes. She had never seen him like this. His eyes were wide and bloodshot and spit sprayed from his lips when he shouted. She realised he probably was ill; seriously ill, and had lost all sense of reason which meant her only option was to run. She tried to dodge sideways but he grabbed her arm. She wrenched away but he caught her again. She began to cry with fear, as Jonty’s face set hard like a mask. He wasn’t shouting anymore but he was as white as a sheet. In an instant he pushed her hard to the ground as she screamed in terror.
“Leave her alone”. The words fell around the struggling pair like rain on a fire. Jonty jumped up as if he had been stung. Andreas helped Annabel to her feet and without thinking she put her shaking arms around his neck and buried her tears in his shoulder. Over her head Andreas stared Jonty in the eyes until he dropped his gaze and shuffled away, muttering to himself.
Just then the office manager’s car pulled up. After explaining what had happened, Annabel begged her not to call the police and the three of them went inside where she was given a strong cup of tea. Andreas went off somewhere with a grim face and all Annabel could think about was being held by him. She longed to go to him but Sheila, the manager, who was a no nonsense type of woman, called Sadie and sent Annabel home in a cab.
That night, as she lay unable to sleep in her bed, Annabel listened to the rising wind outside. The unnaturally still air of the day had been disturbed by a series of loud, grumbling thunderclaps that echoed around the valley and now the wind was rising. Rain began to fall, a drop at a time at first, but soon in torrents, thrown against her window by gust after gust of wind. Lightening tore the skies in two, and Annabel went to the window to watch, half excited, half afraid. In the street below, the streets and walls shone like polished, black marble in the rain, and the streetlamps weak glare showed arcs of light filled with bullets of water, beating down into the darkness. The longing to see Andreas was almost a physical pain, and she felt this storm might tear her away, house and all, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, if she didn’t lock herself into his arms again.
In desperation, she went to Sadie’s room. When she was young she would always get into bed with her when she was scared or couldn’t sleep, but the sight of Sadie in the middle of the bed, arms thrown out, fast asleep made this seem like a bad idea. She went back to her room and looked at the time. It was 4.30am. She knew that there was a chance Andreas would get to work early to check on the horses because of the storm. Dressing quickly, she slipped out of the front door, quietly manoeuvring her bike down the front steps. The rain was lashing against her waterproof jacket, wave after wave, and a seed of doubt planted itself in the pit of her stomach, but was swiftly dismissed at the thought of possibly seeing Andreas.
As she rode through the deserted, rain-blackened streets towards the Marshes, doubt began to nag again, like a splinter in her finger, small but persistent. Had she imagined his warmth? Maybe he had just been comforting her as any friend would. She could turn around now and wait until morning; see him at the stable tomorrow, and see how she felt then. For all her reasoning she knew that she would not be turning back. There was an inevitability about what lay ahead, for better or worse: a fate that must be fulfilled or forever languish on a dusty shelf, unresolved and irresolvable.
She rode over the bridge and onto the Marshes. It was almost pitch black and she hadn’t thought to bring a torch. The branches above her bent and cracked in the wind and the rain buffeted the leaves. Twigs and small branches were falling in her path, as the storm stripped the trees of any foliage too weak to hold on. Suddenly, there was a bolt of lightening and the full destruction around her lit up like a scene from an old horror film. Black and white, in its brief intensity every blade of grass, leaf branch and fence burned itself onto her retina, stunning in its detail and clarity, leaving her almost blinded. Fear and panic began to creep up around her neck like the hands of a strangler. She was becoming a part of this storm, at the mercy of its elemental caprice, its winds threatening to tear her apart and scatter her to the four corners of the earth.
Ahead, she saw where the path swooped down under the road, forming a small underpass. She struggled to reach this shelter then sat trembling against the wall while the storm raged around and above. She began to cry, gently at first, one precious tear following another at a stately distance until she couldn’t suppress a sob that echoed into the shadows. Her mind searched for a reason for this sudden outpouring of emotion and found first her intense feeling for Andreas. Then it span backwards to Jonty’s attack and anger surged through her blood, followed by pity, then disgust. Back still further in time she remembered her previous life with Jonty in the squat: the parties, the comedowns, total waste of it all. Now her tears fell for herself, her squandered life and her total selfishness. She thought of her mother and father, and saw again their grim faces as they had tried to hide their shock at her ravaged face and emaciated body, when they had bundled her into the car, screaming like a feral cat, and taken her to the clinic.
A loud thunderbolt made her jump. She thought of the horses. They would be terrified, and although a couple of staff lived on site at the stables, they would need help now. She got back on her bike and rode out into the storm. The sheer power of it made her gasp, but it was only a five minute ride to Hope In The Valley. When she arrived, soaked to the skin, the building was in darkness, but she could hear the horses inside and the occasional shout. The gates to the back were open and as she cycled round to the stalls, a white face suddenly appeared in front of her, almost causing her to fall. It was Mandy, one of the grooms.
“The electricity’s down and a tree has fallen onto the roof of the stable block. We need to get some of the horses out. Come and help. It’s just me and Andreas at the moment.”
Swallowing her excitement at the knowledge that he was here, she threw herself into doing what needed to be done. The scene in the stables was chaos. The terrified animals had to be calmed, but every nerve in their bodies was telling them to panic. The next hour and a half went by in a blur. There was no time to think about anything except the safety of the horses, while the storm blew itself out. Once, Andreas put his hand around her waist to gently move her out of the way, and their eyes met. A moment of stillness descended, as if time had stopped, then there was the shadow of a smile and he was gone.
When there was nothing more for her to do, Annabel went outside and plumped herself down on the damp grass. Dawn was gracefully withdrawing into a turquoise sky and the sun gilded the edges of the few remaining dark clouds with an intense golden glow. Things that Annabel had known all her life, but never really noticed, the sky, the birds singing, the dewy morning air, now seemed ridiculously beautiful. What was even better was that they would be there again tomorrow, in a world where anything was possible and happiness was here, now. Smiling, she jumped up, took one last look at the climbing sun and headed back into the stable to find Andreas.