The Forestry Ponies
Jess, hair askew, skipped down the loch road, then up the steep brae through the stinking bracken and balancing on a tightrope of rock edges she navigated the burn in spate. She could hear the buzz of band saws in the distance and the cracking of trees as they bounced to the ground along with the Gaelic calls of men to one another. She inhaled the smell of newly cut wood, the petrol smoke and the pungent sweat of the ponies that she loved.
“Hello lass’, the foreman greeted her as she crunched her way into the clearing of wood chips and sawdust and, as she slumped down on a tree stump, she spied her favourite pony, Bran. Her eyes stroked his wiry forelock and flapping mane, she watched his sturdy determination as he strained at his harness, chains rattling, and she was in awe as he pulled his quota of logs.
Jess perched there until a break was called, she then ran over to Bran and ran her fingers down his nose, slyly slipped him a couple of sugar lumps, after which he smacked her a wet kiss. The men slurped their tea out of tin mugs and ate sticky buns, whilst they swapped jokes, some of which Jess didn’t understand. Meanwhile the forestry ponies stood in shades of cream and peat, munching whilst swishing tiresome flies with their tails. Jess soaked in the friendship of man and beast this was a special time; it was uncommon to her, that feeling of camaraderie and family. Then off they would go again, up the worn, tired trail to haul more logs, making sure to avoid the witch’s stone, as a curse would befall anyone who moved it. Jess had touched the old standing stone to feel the magic but had been disappointed; the folk-memory had held more interest.
Dusk fell, the horses stood in wraiths of steam whilst the men hawed and wiped oily hands, they were ready for the off. Jess then got a leg up onto Bran’s back; her prize for waiting so long, the hug of the animal overwhelmed her, like a happy home. Ponies and men wearied down the tracks, whilst the loch below shone the way home like a lantern. Down through tall fir trees, which stood like sentinels guarding them against hidden foes until they reached the tear of the tarmac road. After another mile, the ribbon of friendship reached Jess’s house, tucked under oak and beech trees, it lay anchored to the loch side. She slid from her friend’s back, her knees weak from clinging, she nudged Bran’s nose with hers to say goodbye. The foreman had winked ‘Be good’ but he knew that Jess had already failed; she should have been studying for her O’levels but preferred time spent with the ponies, the friendly foresters. She smelt of wood resin and horse but didn’t care; she ran home grubby and full of glee, ready for a ‘telling off’ and her punishment.
By Evelyn Quek
When we first viewed the apartment, our words echoed, footsteps trailing on cool grey marble as we walked through. The cavernous living room dazzled us with its airiness but the five differently sized rooms were mostly dim and the kitchen pitch black. At the end of a long corridor was a large master bedroom with windows of concrete slabs erected on outside but offered surprisingly, an old sunken bath. I remembered once having a sunken bath, Sundays spent in warm scented water, sunlight streaming through windows and the sound of birds twittering. But this was spacious, along one wall, a blue white terrazzo vanity top four feet long held an oval ceramic basin. Opposite stood an almost child sized, pale blue toilet. Light streamed in through a long, narrow window. Far below people and cars swarmed, antlike on the streets.
We took the 3500 foot apartment bounded by city traffic and swilling crowds, the spaciousness perfect for the two of us who worked from home, its isolating silence on the 25th floor, a sheer relief. Built during the 70’s, Peace Mansion’s 36 floors of dirty grey and brown exterior glowered over costlier neighbouring condos, its height defying strict air regulations in a city state famous for stern governance. Long ago, an official enquiry over this building infringement took place leading to the tragic suicide of a minister responsible for its existence. Conceived as a thing of light and space the building had started badly.
The architect’s grandiose plans to build the highest skyscraper in valuable downtown Singapore failed to for see that once completed, concrete edifices would be raised across the magnificent views on its highest floors as these had the misfortune to tower over the Istana, the President’s residence. So our kitchen stood in perpetual darkness illuminated by harsh neon bars. The space was shared with a stained, rusting stove, two family sized refrigerators dating from when the rooms were sub-let to various tenants and out-of-reach decaying cabinets resting on a sharp, tiled floor. But we were surrounded by mom and pop cafes and food courts offering cheap hot meals so for much of that year, we ate out and hardly cooked.
Sequestered so high, we saw each day, the soaring shadow of an eagle against sheer blue sky and fluffy reshaping clouds, or a kestrel chased by a crow. Our constant neighbours were hardy pigeons with permanent broods established on concrete ledges outside our bedrooms. At night thick with sleep we heard their dream cries. During the day when the stupor of the noon heat slowed the air to almost a standstill, an inaudible hum sometimes happened. Once, alone and lost in reverie, above the vibrating air conditioner, I was startled by a resounding crack. Wood expands in the heat. But an imperceptible sensation dawned, of being watched, an anxiety increasing until my heart raced. Just as quickly the feeling subsided. Since then I have been watchful, a corner of my mind on alert.
It was 8.06 am Harriet clocked in at the factory, six minutes late – this meant her pay would be docked by 15 minutes. How was that even legal she thought.
Harriet would now be on what was considered the worst job – “solitary in the dungeon” –
stocktaking duties in the basement.
Harriet could do the job with her eyes shut, and it allowed her to ponder distant memories her travels in Peru or the foothills of the Andes but it always came back to that acrimonious split with Jonathan, and the classic line about not being able to commit until he had ‘found’ himself which was code for ‘I want to commit but just not to you’ proven when he ran offwith someone 10 years younger than Harriet.
Harriet had arrived back in Blighty, 34, broke, with no real job prospects and alone. Harriet thought of asking Father for yet more funds, but decided against it not being able to bear another ‘I told you so’ lecture. Harriet registered with an agency and took the first position she was offered ‘packer’ on a production line, this will tide me over she thought but that was 8 years ago.
In the beginning it had been a challenge to distance herself from her moneyed upbringing and to think of herself as though she were in a Nell Dunn story – after all these were the ‘real people’ the working poor, the heroes in The Road to Wigan Pier and the Ragged Trouser Philanthropist, the people her newspapers and politics championed.
She always defended the proles to the hilt when at one of her father’s social gatherings.
But she’d soon tired of them. The way they prattled on, an incessant tape loop with little
variation in conversation, the favourite being what they were ‘aving for their tea’ which
always included marrow fat peas! or a blow by blow account of the previous night’s
episode of ‘Eastenders’ all in a ghastly bingo accent.
Finally the bell went indicating it was lunchtime.
Harriet entered the canteen and sat where she always sat. Madge and Rube came over
“Ere dya mind if we join you?”“Please do” Harriet replied.
Madge unwrapped a tin foil package revealing thick white sliced Mother’s Pride a sliver of pink processed meat hung out of the side.
‘Eugh’ thought Harriet as she bit into her avocado and rye soda bread.
’it’s only Tuesday, I’ve got another 3 days of this!’
As usual Rube was flicking through the Sun, only ever interested in a salacious murder or celebrity gossip.
‘ooh they should bring back ‘anging for the likes of ‘im’ was one of her well worn
Harriet meanwhile read her Guardian and an article on social inequality in Britain, agreeingwith every word about the injustice.
Harriet was now on the crossword,
“Beginning with G, 5 letters another word for ostentatious”.
Sylive’s quick response was
“eh I don’t even know what osten whatever means, ’ere you swallowed a dictionary?”
cackling at her own joke as though original, even though she herself had made it time and
time again and despite no response she still felt it ok to repeat herself.
They were joined by Pam, who told them Vera was leaving and there was going to be a
‘knees up’ at the Kings ‘ead after work. Even though Harriet never socialised with her co-workers, Madge never gave up trying to persuade her to join them. Nagging on, “it would do ya good, we ‘ave a right laugh” and to “come out ya shell!”
Harriet was reminded of the one and only time she had been out with them, ‘Christmas
Dinner on the Firm’. Pearl had billed the restaurant as “classy and ex-o-ic”, in reality it was a ropey old tapas bar in the High Street. Harriet had sat opposite Sylvie who held her
knife like a pencil, and Tracey complained on her first mouthful of gazpacho, “Ere this
“No, sorry I’m busy” Harriet replied, thinking she would rather walk through diarrhoea in flipflops than spend an evening with them.
Finally it was 4.30 pm, Harriet clocked off and made her way towards the station.
Harriet passed the Kings ‘Ead, outside a chalked up blackboard advertising sports and
karaoke, the aroma of stale beer in the air, a man in the doorway with a large paunch
covered in a shiny nylon football shirt, ‘avin’ a fag.
Although Harriet had never been inside, she pictured the interior with its worn out
patterned carpet, now black and shiny in places. Speakers blaring out some ghastly
opiate for the masses, no doubt encouraging procreation.
A dartboard with a gaggle of overweight bald men with fat necks and faded tattooed
forearms – a rite of passage at age 16 that had limited their future and stereotyped them to their class.
Harriet paused for a second, but this was no experiment like Jack London in the Abyss,
this was her life too.Harriet despised and looked down on these people, as though she were so superior. Could Madge and Rube see through her? see her for what she really was? A sad little snob, who did not belong anywhere. Rejected by her own class the book club she’d tried to join, judged by her lowly occupation which was an embarrassment. Did it make her feel better to poke fun at them, but they did not care, they had purpose, families, holidays to look forward to, a sense of belonging, and they duly looked out for their own. What did she have?
Harriet pushed the door open.