In 1992, I was a pony obsessed, fourteen year old Tom Boy, with an abhorrence of anything remotely girly, and an aversion to the opposite sex.
If it couldn't walk, trot and canter, i didn't want to know. I remember feeling utterly bereft as i watched my friends succumb to the insidious lures of their burgeoning adolescence; I would listen to them giggling about their latest crushes and feel as though they were talking in a different language. Why would anyone with a Pony want a Boy too? How could they possibly think about anything else besides passing their C test, going clear in the Cross Country and winning Camp Cup?
During a Road Safety rally, Jane and Tammy turned to me and asked which member of New Kids On The Block I "fancied". I stared blankly at their expectant faces and replied "None of them."
They looked at me in open mouthed disbelief.
"You must fancy one of them. What about Joey?" Tammy persisted, mock swooning in the saddle.
I looked at her in disgust. "I think they're all gross, even Joey actually." I said stiffly.
There was a silence. They gaped at me. I stared back defiantly.
"Are you frigid?" asked Jane. Tammy started giggling.
"No, I just don't fancy boys." i snapped.
"Maybe you're a lezzy! Do you fancy Helga?" she snorted, gesturing to our terrifyingly butch Instructor, who had recently been caught en flagrante with her gelatinous lady friend in a portaloo at the Hunt Ball.
"You're so funny!" i sighed witheringly at them. My attempt to turn and canter away looking elegantly dignified was scuppered by my notoriously greedy pony flattening his ears and refusing to stop stuffing his face with grass. After much hauling on the reins and ineffectual flailing of legs against his drum-like belly, we shuffled away at a ragged trot with their laughter ringing in my ears.
Despite their taunts, that Summer was one of the happiest of my life. I would make a picnic lunch in a rucksack, and slip out into the misty dawn to catch my pony. I remember the sound of his hoof beats as he cantered towards me across the dew drenched field, before wedging his head into the bucket of pony nuts. We'd wander for miles, exploring bridle paths, jumping over fallen logs, stopping to pick plump blackberries from the hedgerows, and swimming in the rivers.
It would be early evening by the time we hacked home along the narrow dusty lanes.
Our local horse show always fell on the day before Pony Club Camp. Having spent the day playing gymkhana games in the scorching heat, and gamefully attempting to persuade my reluctant mount to walk across sheets of plastic and jump over staw bales (he objected violently to both tasks and aimed a vicious kick at the Judge, prompting our elimination on safety grounds) I would proudly tie any rosettes to his browband and we would potter home through the lengthening shadows, dusty and weary, but profoundly happy.
Camp was the highlight of the Pony Club Calendar.
Seven whole days of living, breathing and dreaming horses is unadultered bliss for a Pony mad child, and I would count down the days in a state of giddy anticipation, organising and re-organising my grooming kit, polishing my tack, and sprucing up my pony. I had read the Manual Of Horsemanship three times from cover to cover by the light of a torch under my duvet, and was desperately hoping to pass my C test. My practical knowledge of rugs, bandages, tack, and feed was exemplary, and my riding teacher assured me that i should pass, "provided that bugger behaves in the ridden test."
Realising that our success depended almost entirely on my pony's conduct, I crept out to his stable the night before camp and bribed him with apples and carrots, in the hope that he would reciprocate my kindness by not bucking me off.
Before i went to sleep, i knelt beside my bed and said a Prayer.
"Dear God, please let me not fall off when i am doing my C test. If you let me pass, i will eat all my peas and give all my pocket money to charity until I'm fifteen. Amen."
By twelve noon the next day, we had arrived at Camp, settled ASBO in his stable and were pitching my 4 man tent. My Father was always conspicuous by his absence on these occasions. When asked in the morning whether he would come to help set up, he would mutter vaguely about having a tennis playing comittment and drift off, leaving my Mother to get on with it. Her beauty had a mesmeric effect on the surrounding males. She would barely have laid out the ground sheet before the Fathers would start appearing like wasps around a jam jar. Buoyed up by a few lunch time pints in the Fox And Hounds, they would abandon their own efforts, and descend upon my Mother, leaving their poe face wives standing clutching handfuls of tent pegs and propping up half erected canvases. (She always declined their offers of help graciously but firmly.)
A few hours later, I was pulling my jodpurs on in preparation for the afternoons Mounted service. This was a very formal and rather long winded affair, led by the local Vicar who addressed his mounted congregation from atop a giant hay stack. The previous year, ASBO had demonstrated his flagrant disregard for the solemnity of the occasion by emitting a loud volley of farts during the sermon, eliciting giggling fits all round and a rollicking from Mrs Tilly, the universally feared DC.
I had just buttoned up my hacking jacket when Tammy and Jane rushed into the tent, breathless with excitement. It transpired that they had spied A Boy on their way back from the pony lines, and a very Handsome Boy at that. Having said that, there were only five boys at Camp that year so it didn't really say much.
I resisted the urge to pull a face as they raved about his "floppy hair" and "gorgeous brown eyes." They had discovered that his name was Oscar and he went to Eton. I listened drily as they described him as "really fit" with a "sexy smile."
"FFWOOOAARRR!!" growled Tammy like a lecherous builder, and they both dissolved into giddy laughter.
"If we don't go, we'll miss the Service." I said in a bored voice.
"OOOhh! Sorr-eeeee! We were forgot you're frigid! " they tittered.
"Brrrrr! it must be cold being a fridge! Do you need a jumper?" scoffed Tammy.
I scowled at them and stomped off to the stables.
In the days that followed, I realised that I was the only girl at Camp who didn't have a thumping great crush on Oscar. There was, it seemed, a love sickness endemic and i was the only one with immunity. Maybe I was a lezzy, i thought to myself one day as i lazed in my hammock reading "Jill's Gymkhana" and half watching a horde of lissome teenagers following him to the pony lines.
Wherever he went, they were ten paces behind him, fawning, giggling, and fluttering their eyelashes. If he went to the loo, they would lurk outside and wait for him to emerge. They would squabble over who sat next to him at breakfast, lunch and tea. They would encircle him and eye him lasciviously as he groomed his pony. A couple of the more brazen ones offered to clean his tack and polish his boots.
I was surprised to note that whilst he was unfailingly courteous to his pursuers, he remained largely indifferent to their advances. Given that two of his admirers were outrageously pretty, I started to wonder if he wasn't a lezzy too.
By the fourth day he had a slightly hunted look about him and i started to realise how the fox feels when the hounds are closing in. The girls were becoming increasingly desperate in their attempts to attract his attention, and that evening, they ran him to ground in his caravan. He locked himself in whilst they hammered on the door and ordered him to come outside. They pressed their faces up against the windows like a bunch of starving Dickensian Waifs gazing hungrily at a suckling pig. When he drew the curtains in desperation, they set about rocking his caravan from side to side and cackling with laughter. One of them produced a tube of tooth paste and they daubed his windows with hearts and declarations of undying love. Milly was trying to prise the door open with a hoof pick, when the DC wobbled unsteadily around the corner on her bicycle, red in the face from too much port and screamed at them all to get back to bed. They squealed in horror and scampered off like bob tailed bunnies, and Oscar emerged looking shaken to survey the graffiti.
We awoke the next day to glorious sunshine. The traces of tooth paste were still visible on Oscar's bolt hole, and he didn't come into breakfast. There was a mutinous atmosphere, despite the beautiful weather. The girls knew that they were running out of time. Today was the last day. Tomorrow, Oscar would be gone and they wouldn't see him again until next year, although after this years experience, I very much doubted if he would ever attend a Pony Club Camp again.
The day passed uneventfully, until my glamorous 19 year old Sister turned up after lunch with her handsome boyfriend in tow, brandishing two bulging Threshers bags. The Ginger Beer that they had waved blithely under the District Commissioners nose, was actually 8 litres of Merry Down Cider smuggled in inside Decoy bottles; a simple but ingenious display of trickery which rendered us speechless with admiration.
Giddy with excitement, we hid our loot in our sleeping bags and planned to drink it after dark.
It was cross country schooling after lunch and I was trying in vain to saddle ASBO who had thus far thwarted my attempts by blowing himself up like a balloon so his girth wouldn't meet. The ride had already set off and I was starting to panic when a voice behind me asked "Can i help you with that?"
It was Oscar. I gawped at him. I must have looked as though i'd swallowed a pigeon.
"Um, Sorry. What? " I croaked.
"Your girth. Here, let me have a go." he said kindly. He stepped forward and grabbed the leathers. ASBO grunted, deflated like a balloon, then farted loudly. I went pink.
"Thankyou." I mumbled, shoving my hat on to hide my blushes.
"You're name's Jessica isn't it?" he smiled.
"Uh-huh." I said.
"I'm Oscar. "
"I know. Hhm hmm." I replied, inwardly squirming at my uninspiring response.
Why on earth did I care? He's only a silly boy after all....
"I must go or I'll be late. Thanks for your help." I mumbled, glancing up at him. He was quite tall, with tousled brown hair. His face was tanned and there was a sprinkling of freckles across his nose. He smiled; his teeth gleamed white in his brown face and as he pulled down the stirrup leather I noticed how his sleeves were rolled up to reveal strong brown forearms.
I scrambled into the saddle and rode off feeling strangely light headed.
Later on that evening, when the sun had gone down and the Night Watch Man had done his final round, Tammy, Jane, Milly and I, seized our bottles of Merry Down and crept across the pitch black campsite to the Straw Barn. There was a moment of panic when someone swung a flashlight in our direction but we dived under a horsebox until the light had bobbed out of sight before continuing our treacherous journey. The others were already waiting for us and we opened the bottles, giggling madly, and started to drink.
By Midnight, we were feeling decidedly fuzzy around the edges and mindful that we had to take our C test the next day, we decided to go to bed. When we got back to our tent, Jane realised that we had left an empty cider bottle behind, so I doubled back to get it.
I was almost there when a figure stepped out from the shadowy barn. I froze and held my breath as the clouds parted and the moon lit up the clearing. It was Oscar.
We sat on a straw bale, breathing in the heady scent of baked earth and sweet hay, and listened to the horses moving in their stalls. There was a distant sound of raucous laughter from the main house accompanied by a succession of loud splashes. The Instructor's End Of Camp party had moved to the swimming pool. An Owl hooted in a nearby tree. I looked at Oscar. His face was a valley of hollows and curves in the phophorous light. He leant forward and kissed me.
It's a good thing that we were sitting down because my knees went all wobbly - and it wasn't the cider....