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The Horse Dancer, Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  Yet slowly, steadily, working from six in the morning until late into the evening, the farmhand from Tours had built a reputation for hard work and his skill in communicating with the most difficult horses. Henri Lachapelle, the maitres ecuyers would observe, from under their black caps, had a 'quiet seat'. He was sympathique. It was the reason that, alongside his beloved Gerontius, he had been allocated Phantasme, the explosive young iron grey gelding, who needed only the slightest excuse for catastrophic behaviour. He had been quietly anxious about the decision to put Phantasme in such a role all week. But now, with the eyes of the crowd upon him, the musical beauty of the strings filling his ears, the even tempo of Gerontius's paces beneath him, he felt, suddenly, in Xenophon's words, that he was indeed a 'man on wings'. He felt Florence's admiring eyes upon him and knew that later his lips would meet her skin, and rode more deeply, more elegantly, with a lightness of touch that had the veteran horse showing off, his neat ears flicking forwards with pleasure. This is what I am made for, he thought, with gratitude. Everything I need is here. He saw the flames of the torches flickering on the walls of the ancient pillars, heard the rhythmic thud of the horses' hooves as they dovetailed neatly in and out of each other around him. He cantered in formation around the great manege, lost in the moment, conscious only of the horse that moved so beautifully beneath him, flicking out his hooves in a way that made Henri want to laugh. The old horse was showing off.

  'Sit straight, Lachapelle. You're riding like a peasant.'

  He blinked, glimpsed Picart as he rode up alongside him, passed him shoulder to shoulder.

  'Why do you fidget so? Did your whore give you the itch?' he hissed, under his breath.

  Henri made as if to speak, but broke off as Le Grand Dieu shouted, 'Levade!' and in a row, the riders raised their horses on to their back legs, to a burst of clapping.

  As the horses' front feet hit the ground again, Picart turned away. His voice, however, was still clearly audible. 'Does she fuck like a peasant too?'

  Henri bit the inside of his lip, forcing himself to keep his cool, not to let his anger travel down the reins to infect his sweet-natured horse. He could hear the announcer explaining the technicalities of the riders' movements, and tried to corral his thoughts, to let the words flow through him. Under his breath, he repeated the words of Xenophon: 'Anger undermines effective communication with your horse.' He would not let Picart destroy this night. 'Mesdames et messieurs, now in the centre of the arena you will see Monsieur de Cordon performing levade. See how the horse balances on his hind legs at an angle of exactly forty-five degrees.' Henri was dimly aware of the black horse rearing somewhere behind him, the sudden breaking-out of applause. He forced himself to focus, to hold Gerontius's attention. But he kept thinking of Florence's face when Picart had yelled his obscenities near her, the anxiety that had passed across her features. What if she knew more French than she had let on?

  'And now, you will see Gerontius, one of our older horses, performing capriole. This is one of the most demanding moves, for both horse and rider. The horse leaps into the air, kicking out behind him while all four feet are off the ground.'

  Henri slowed Gerontius, teaming the resistance of his hands with a swift request from his spurs. He felt the horse begin to rock beneath him, the terre a terre, the stationary rocking-horse motion that would build power beneath him. I will show them, he thought, and then: I will show him.

  Everything else disappeared. It was just him and the brave old horse, the growing power beneath him. And then with a shout of 'Derriere!' he brought his whip hand towards the horse's rear, his spurs to the horse's belly, and Gerontius was leaping upwards, into the air, his back legs shooting out horizontally behind him. Henri was aware of a sudden blinding bank of camera flashes, a great stereophonic whooo of delight, applause, and then he was cantering towards the red curtain, taking with him a glimpse of Florence, who had stood to applaud him, her face wreathed in proud smiles.

  'Bon! C'etait bon!' He was already sliding off Gerontius, his hand rubbing the horse's shoulder, the dresseur leading him away. He was dimly aware of some exclamations of approval, then a change in tempo of the music in the arena, a glimpse through the red curtain of two other ecuyers performing their own display on foot, their horses controlled by two long reins.

  'Phantasme is very nervous.' The groom had appeared beside him, his thick black brows knotted with concern. He chastised the grey horse, which wheeled around them. 'Watch him, Henri.'

  'He will be fine,' Henri said absently, lifting his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. The groom handed the reins to the waiting horsemen beside him then turned to Henri and carefully removed his cap. This movement was performed bare-headed to prevent the distraction of a sliding cap, but it always made Henri feel strangely vulnerable.

  He watched the gunmetal grey horse prance into the arena in front of him, its neck already dark with sweat, a man at each shoulder.

  'Go. Now. Go.' The dresseur brushed the back of his jacket briskly, then shoved him into the arena. Three ecuyers surrounded the horse, one at each side of his head, another at the rear.

  He strode out under the lights, wishing suddenly that, like them, he had the anchoring presence of a horse to hold on to.

  'Bonne chance!' He heard his groom's voice before it was swallowed by applause.

  'Mesdames et messieurs, voila La Croupade which originated in the cavalry of the seventeen hundreds when it was considered a test of a cavalryman's ability to stay in the saddle. Such movements may take four or five years to master. Monsieur Lachapelle will be riding Phantasme without reins or stirrups. This movement, which dates back to Greek times, is even more testing for rider than horse. It is a more elegant version of the rodeo, if you like.'

  There was a ripple of laughter. Henri, half blinded by the floodlights, glanced at Phantasme, whose whitened eye was rolling with a mixture of nerves and barely suppressed fury. A naturally acrobatic horse, he disliked being held so firmly at his head, and the noise, sounds and smells of Le Carrousel seemed to have exacerbated his already bad temper.

  Henri touched the horse's tense shoulder. 'Sssh,' he murmured. 'It's okay. It's okay.' He glimpsed the quick smiles of Duchamp and Varjus, the two men at Phantasme's head. They were both effective horsemen, quick to respond to a horse's mercurial change in mood.

  'Sit deep, eh?' Varjus said, grinning, as he gave him a leg up. 'Un, deux, trois . . . hup.'

  The horse was radiating tension. This is good, Henri told himself, as he straightened in the saddle. The adrenalin will give him greater height. It will look better for the crowd, for Le Grand Dieu. He forced himself to breathe deeply. It was then, as he folded his hands at the small of his back in the traditional passive position that always reminded him uncomfortably of a captive, that Henri looked down to the near side and realised who had been stationed at Phantasme's rear.

  'Shall we see what kind of rider you really are, Lachapelle?' Picart said.

  He had no time to respond. He lengthened his legs as far as possible, clasped his gloved hands behind him. He heard the announcer say something else, and felt the expectant hush in the arena.


  Varjus glanced behind him. The terre a terre was building beneath him. 'Un, deux, derriere!'

  He felt the horse building in impulsion, heard the sudden thwack as Picart's whip met its quarters. Phantasme bucked, rear end shooting up, and Henri was pitched forward, whiplashed so that he only just managed to maintain the clasp of his hands behind him. The horse steadied, and there was a burst of applause.

  'Not bad, Lachapelle,' he heard Varjus mutter, braced against Phantasme's chest.

  And then, suddenly, before he had time to prepare, there was another cry of 'Derriere!' Phantasme's back legs were shooting him up and forward so that this time Henri's arms flew out to the sides as he tried to maintain his balance.

  'Not so soon, Picart. You're unseating him.'

  Disoriented, Henri heard Varjus's irritated voice
, the horse's barely contained squeal as his back braced beneath him. 'Two seconds. Give me two seconds,' he muttered, trying to right himself. But before he could do so he heard another thwack. It came down hard from above, and this time the horse's buck was huge; he felt himself pitched forward again, the abrupt, disconcerting distance between his seat and the saddle.

  Phantasme threw himself sideways now, furious and the men struggled to hold the horse's head. Varjus hissed something Henri could not hear. They were near the red curtain. He glimpsed Florence in her yellow dress, could see her confusion and concern. And then: 'Enfin! Derriere!' Before he could reposition himself there was another loud smack behind him. He was thrown forward again, his back twisting, and Phantasme, infuriated by this injudicious use of the whip, leapt forwards and sideways just at the point that Henri finally lost his balance. He was on the horse's plaited poll, he was upside down, reaching for Phantasme's neck as the horse bucked again, before - with an audible ouf - he hit the floor.

  Henri lay there, dimly aware of the commotion in the arena: Varjus swearing, Picart protesting, the announcer laughing. As he lifted his head from the sand, he could just make out the words: 'And there you go. A very hard movement to sit. Better luck next year, Monsieur Lachapelle, eh? You see, mesdames et messieurs, sometimes it takes many years of practice to reach the very high standards of the maitres ecuyers.'

  He heard the un, deux, trois and Varjus was at his side, hissing at him to remount, remount. He glanced down, realising that his immaculate black uniform was covered with sand. Then he was up on the horse, hands at his legs, his feet, and they were walking out of the arena to sympathetic applause. It was the most painful sound he had ever heard.

  He was numb with shock. Ahead, he was aware of a low argument between Varjus and Picart, but he could barely hear it above the roaring of the blood in his ears.

  'What was that?' Varjus was shaking his head. 'Nobody has ever fallen off during La Croupade. You made us look stupid.' It was a moment before Henri grasped that Varjus was addressing Picart.

  'It's not my fault if the only thing Lachapelle can ride is an English whore.'

  Henri slid off the horse and walked up to Picart, his ears ringing. He was not even aware of the first punch, just of the loud crack as his knuckles met the man's teeth, an almost satisfying give within the sound, a physical knowledge that something had been broken, long before pain raised the possibility that it might have been his hand. Horses shrieked and leapt apart. Men shouted. Picart was splayed on the sand, his hand pressed to his face, eyes wide with shock. Then he scrambled to his feet, launched himself at Henri and head-butted him in the chest, winding him. It was a move that might have felled a bigger man, and Henri was only five feet eight, but he had had the benefit of a childhood in which beatings were common-place, and six years in the National Guard. Within seconds he was atop Picart, his fists flying into the younger man's face, cheeks and chest, with all the rage of the past few months.

  His knuckles met something hard and splintered. His left eye closed as a vicious blow met it. There was sand in his mouth. And then hands were dragging him off, batting at him, voices scolding, raised in disbelief.

  'Picart! Lachapelle!'

  As his vision blurred and righted, as he stood, spitting and swaying, the hands gripping his arms, his ears still filled with the string adagio from beyond the curtain, Le Grand Dieu was standing in front of him, his face bright with rage. 'What. On earth. Is this?'

  Henri shook his head, noting the spray of blood as he did so. 'Sir . . .' He was panting, only now becoming aware of the magnitude of his mistake.

  'Le Carrousel!' Le Grand Dieu hissed. 'The epitome of grace and dignity. Of discipline. Where is your self-control? You two have brought shame on us. Get back to the stables. I have a performance to finish.'

  He mounted his horse as Picart staggered past, a handkerchief pressed to his ashen face. Henri watched him go. Slowly it dawned on him that the arena beyond the curtain was strangely quiet. They had seen, he realised with horror. They knew.

  'Two paths.' Le Grand Dieu looked down at him from the Portuguese stallion. 'Two paths, Lachapelle. I told you the last time. It was your choice.'

  'I cannot--' he began.

  But Le Grand Dieu had already ridden out into the floodlights.


  'The horse rearing thus is such a thing of wonder as to fix the eyes of all beholders, young or old.'

  Xenophon, On Horsemanship, c. 350 BC


  The six forty-seven to Liverpool Street was heaving. It seemed ridiculous that a train should be this busy so early in the morning. Natasha Macauley sat down, already overheated despite the cool of early morning, muttering an apology to a woman who had to move her jacket out of the way. The besuited man who had got on behind her forced himself into a gap between the passengers opposite, and promptly unfolded his newspaper, oblivious to the woman whose paperback he partially obscured.

  It was an unusual route for her to take to work: she had spent the night at a hotel in Cambridge after a legal seminar. A satisfying number of business cards from solicitors and barristers lay in her jacket pocket; they had congratulated her on her speech, then suggested future meetings and possible work. But the cheap white wine that had flowed so freely now caused her stomach to gripe and she wished, briefly, that she had found time for breakfast. She did not normally drink, and it was hard to keep track of her consumption at events when her glass was perpetually topped up while she was distracted by conversation.

  Natasha clutched her scalding polystyrene cup of coffee and glanced down at her diary, promising herself that at some point today she would carve out a space longer than half an hour in which to clear her head. Her diary would contain an hour in the gym. She would take an hour for lunch. She would, as her mother admonished, take care of herself.

  But for now it read:

  [?] 9 a.m. LA vs Santos, Court 7

  [?] Persey divorce. Child psych evaluation?

  [?] Fees! Check with Linda re legal aid situation

  [?] Fielding - where is witness statement? MUST FAX TODAY

  Every page, for at least a fortnight ahead, was a relentless, endlessly reworked series of lists. Her colleagues at Davison Briscoe had largely switched to electronic devices - handheld jotters and BlackBerrys - with which to navigate their lives, but she preferred the simplicity of pen and paper, even though Linda complained that her schedules were unreadable.

  Natasha sipped her coffee, noticed the date and winced. She added

  [?] Flowers/apols re Mum's birthday

  The train rumbled towards London, the flatlands of Cambridgeshire seguing into the grey, industrial outskirts of the city. Natasha stared at her paperwork, struggling to focus. She was facing a woman who seemed to think it was okay to eat a hamburger with extra cheese for breakfast, and a teenager whose blank expression was curiously at odds with the thumping emanating from his earphones. It was going to be an unforgivingly hot day: the heat seeped into the packed carriage, transferred and amplified by the bodies.

  She closed her eyes, wishing she could sleep on trains, then opened them at the sound of her mobile phone. She rummaged in her bag, locating it between her makeup and her wallet. A text message flashed up:

  Local authority in Watson case rolled over. Not needed in court 9 a.m. Ben

  For the past four years Natasha had been Davison Briscoe's sole solicitor advocate, a solicitor-barrister hybrid that had proved useful when it came to her speciality, representing children. They were less fazed to appear in court beside the woman in whose office they had already explained themselves. For her part, Natasha liked being able to build relationships with her clients and still enjoy the more adversarial elements of advocacy.

  Thanks. Will be in office in half an hour

  she texted back, with a sigh of relief. Then she cursed silently; she needn't have missed breakfast after all.

  She was about to put her phone away when it rang again. Ben, her
trainee: 'Just wanted to remind you that we - ah - rescheduled that Pakistani girl for ten thirty.'

  'The one whose parents are fighting care proceedings?' Beside her, a woman coughed pointedly. Natasha glanced up, saw 'No Mobile Telephones' etched on the window, dipped her head and rifled through her diary. 'We've also got the parents from the child-abduction case in at two. Can you dig out the relevant paperwork?' She murmured.

  'Done it. And I got some croissants,' Ben added. 'I'm assuming you won't have had anything.'

  She never had. If Davison Briscoe ever abandoned the trainee system she suspected she would starve to death.

  'They're almond. Your favourite.'

  'Slavish crawling, Ben, will get you a long way.'

  Natasha closed the phone, and then her case. She had just pulled the girl's paperwork from her briefcase when her phone rang again.

  This time there was audible tutting. She mumbled an apology, without looking anyone in the eye. 'Natasha Macauley.'

  'Linda. Just had a call from Michael Harrington. He's agreed to act for you in the Persey divorce.'

  'Great.' It was a big-money divorce, with complicated custody issues. She had needed a heavyweight barrister to take the financial side.

  'He wants to discuss a few matters with you this afternoon. You free at two?'

  She was considering this when she became aware that the woman beside her was muttering, her tone unfriendly.