Horses, horses, coming in from all directions

Saint James (Santiago) lays waste to the Moors in Santiago
Saint James (Santiago) lays waste to the Moors

short story

What happened remains unknown, but an often-repeated tale states that Nietzsche witnessed the flogging of a horse at the other end of the Piazza Carlo Alberto, ran to the horse, threw his arms up around its neck to protect it, and then collapsed to the ground.

However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. George Orwell Preface to the Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm

But the poor boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms round her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips.

Rodya Raskolnikov’s dream from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Horses on the Camino de Primitivo

‘I came as soon as I could.’ Anna bustled into his office with her hand outstretched. ‘Thank you, so, so much, for waiting for me, I’m very sorry to keep you away from your weekend …’

‘Thank you, yes, well, we won’t be long.’ He took her hand briefly before indicating the chair in front of his desk. ‘Won’t you take a seat?’

She sat down, balanced her handbag on her lap and looked at him with her serious blue eyes. ‘How is she?’ She spoke directly to the man and expected an equally straight response.

‘She’s sedated now, much calmer.’ The doctor’s smile was reassuring but not direct. ‘You’re able to take her home with you, if you’d like?’

‘You don’t need to keep her?’

‘Oh, no, no. But she’s lucky she wasn’t seriously hurt.’

‘You don’t think three broken ribs, a broken collar-bone and a leg injury is hurt?’

‘The horse fell on her. It could have been far worse.’

‘But, do you know what happened? What was she was doing there in the first place?’

‘Apparently she was camping. Did you know about these?’ He had Pat’s backpack behind his desk. He lifted it up and placed it on top of an open file. He glanced up at Anna as if contemplating asking her permission but then went ahead anyway. He unzipped the bag and took out a handful of leaflets. He handed one over to her.

The leaflet featured a pair of eyes that were clearly not human. The banner ran, ‘If you could only see what they see.’ On the back was a collection of quotations. The doctor glanced at Anna and read out loud. His voice held no expression. ‘”Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, apparently.’

Anna looked at the doctor and they paused for a moment in silence. The doctor raised his eyebrow and then bent his head to continue reading aloud; details of a rally to be held at Flemington Racecourse protesting cruelty to horses in jumps racing. Then, without altering his tone from reading, he continued with his own opinion. ‘I don’t think it wise she attend this rally,’ said the doctor. ‘Do you?’ He looked up at Anna, seeking her assent.

Anna looked back at him. She felt she didn’t know enough to make decisions for Pat. ‘I see.’

‘After she’s recovered from her immediate injuries, going forward, I’ve given her a script and recommended she see a psychiatrist.’

‘A psychiatrist.’ Anna echoed. She couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing.

‘I believe she’d benefit from talking to someone for a while.’

‘Yes,’ said Anna, thinking what a bland concept ‘talking to someone’ was.

‘She’ll need help to her manage her medications.’

Anna didn’t want to think about medications. ‘Could I see her, do you think?’

‘Of course. She’s fine, you know. Absolutely fine. Apart from, well, her ‘passion’, shall we say? She’s easily distressed, isn’t she?’

‘She feels things, I suppose.’

‘Perhaps, if she could find something else to occupy her mind? Gardening? Or some kind of craft?’ The doctor stood, indicating the interview was nearing its end. ‘I know my wife enjoys her pottery. Something to keep her hands busy, you know the sort of thing?’

Anna stood, as much to hide her confusion as to escape as quickly as she could. ‘Thank you, Doctor … ’

‘Oh, it’s Mr, just plain old Mr, Jenkins. The more we study, the more ordinary we become,’ and he laughed.

She didn’t laugh with him because she was too worried about her sister. She followed him to the waiting room. As he pushed the code into the pad by the locked door, she could see Pat through the window, bandaged, sitting quietly, staring in front of her, doing nothing. Anna felt a grab at her heart because, usually, Pat was doing something. It was unnatural to see her there, limp and empty-handed. Useless. ‘Hi, Pat. I’m here.’

Pat looked up and took some time to focus on her sister. Then she stood. She looked small and pale, beige where once there had been colour. Mr Jenkins smiled and even did a small bow. He indicated a woman sitting behind a desk in the waiting room. ‘I’ll leave you with Marianne. She’ll look after you and … ‘ he added to Marianne, ‘ … make sure we’ve got all your details. Good luck, Pat,’ and he patted Pat on the shoulder before he turned to leave.

Pat stared at him retreating and moved to stand next to Anna. She took a light hold on Anna’s forearm. It was as if she was blind and Anna was going to have to lead her. Pat trotted along beside Anna peacefully. Anna took care of the paperwork, made sure Pat’s wallet was still in her bag and eventually they were out in the car park, breathing in clean air at last. They got into the car. Anna looked at Pat and reminded her to do up her seat belt. She drove her home and it was only when Anna turned off the engine that Pat turned to her and said, ‘But this is your place.’

‘You’re staying here. For a couple of days.’

‘You don’t need me.’

‘Yes, we do. Come on.’ The doctor’s assistant had given Anna all Pat’s meds and instructions on when they had to be taken. Anna laid everything out in the spare bathroom. It was straightforward but there did seem to be a lot. Apparently there’s not much that can be done with these particular broken bones. They just have to knit together over time. Anna sat down next to Pat’s bed. ‘Do you want soup? Fresh, straight from the can?’

Pat had been given effective sedation. She didn’t even smile. Anna worried about this slow-moving woman. Although she looked like Pat she certainly wasn’t acting like her. Anna called to Simon. The little dog scampered in and stood quietly as Pat stroked his head and then turned away. He looked up at Anna inquiringly. Who was this new hesitant person?

Every day of her life Pat O’Neil had been patted. Before she was old enough for school, as she accompanied her mother shopping, the greengrocer, the newsagent and the butcher all thought it amusing to pat her on her head. This was all very well when she was a toddler but as she grew she found it intensely frustrating. Her mother explained it was like rubbing a Buddha statue’s tummy for good luck but Pat didn’t understand the comparison.

When she started her various primary schools, the patting came from teachers, nuns and her classmates. Pat never enjoyed being patted no matter how comical the person patting her found it. Never stopped anyone from doing it. Every day Pat endured being patted. And, of course, there was the kneeling. At least once a week, either she would be encouraged to get down on her knees (with varying degrees of reinforcement) or others would kneel down in front of her and it was never in a worshipping kind of way. Not for real. A sing-song chorus of ‘Oh, kneel, Pat, kneel,’ would be a sign to Pat that it was time for her to run off to the toilets or the library or the school office where she could be out of the limelight. She made herself useful to the women in the office, who pretended there was nothing whatsoever funny about her name, so she wouldn’t have to go out amongst her tormentors. The women used her to run messages and deliveries to the teachers.

Pat grew up with usefulness ingrained in her. It was not only her duty to help others, unquestioningly and selflessly, it was also by far the best way she’d discovered to stay unmolested. Her sister always tried to include Pat but it was only a matter of time before someone would pat her on the head so eventually she avoided social gatherings altogether and instead made herself useful at home. There was much to do there, for her mother preferred gin and tonic to cooking and sherry to doing dishes. Actually her mother would much rather drizzle vermouth over ice instead of hanging out the washing and there was simply no competition between swilling a Shiraz and cleaning bathrooms. Pat had her work cut out for her.

Pat’s father was an executive in a mining company. As a company family, they moved wherever he did, particularly when the girls were younger. Pat was born in Mumbai. Almost immediately the family relocated to Papua New Guinea where her sister, Anna, was born two years later. They lived in South Africa until her father was shifted to Australia. Sometimes Pat felt like a pot plant. All this moving was unfortunate because it meant every few years, at each new school, she would have to be introduced all over again and a fresh set of wags would pat and kneel and her need for sanctuary would send her in search of useful purpose.

As the girls came to the end of their schooling, their father came to the end of his peripatetic career. He stayed in one spot and the girls got on with passing exams. Eventually Anna left home. She tried to get Pat to move too but Pat knew her mother could not survive without her. Her father had the first of his strokes so Pat could see how useful she would be staying home with her parents. She felt her choice was inevitable. After she left school, she found a job at the local dentist’s surgery and due to her diligence and talent for figures, the dentist was able to renovate, bring in new dentists and two full-time receptionists to look after more and more patients.

Over the years, Pat administered it all perfectly. She became a thoughtful slender woman who turned twenty-eight without any serious friendship, much less any romantic involvement. She was busy with the dentists, looking after her parents, being useful, and she never even noticed she was lonely. She dressed sensibly, often in earthy tones. Everything matched that way. Her mother died after a heart attack and a close encounter with two bottles of whiskey over a flight of stairs. It was very messy and Pat had a lot of cleaning up to do. Her sister came to help her but Pat could see Anna needed to be with her new husband so she sent her away. Her father died and Pat cleaned up after him. After probate and finishing up his affairs there was nothing to prevent her spending all her time at the surgery. She completed a part-time accounting course after hours and took over the dentists’ finances completely. She became indispensable.

Then one day, Anna rang her to ask for help. She wanted to go away to Paris for a month and would Pat know anyone who could look after a flat and a small dog? Anna was not surprised (she’d planned it all along) when Pat insisted that she herself would be the only person who could be trusted with it. ‘It? He’s a dog. His name is Simon.’ And so it came to pass that Pat closed up the dark Californian bungalow that had seen the last days of Mr and Mrs O’Neil and went to stay in a modern light-filled apartment overlooking the Royal Botanic Gardens, with all the latest in kitchen gadgetry and a small dog called Simon.

Pat had never before shared her life with an animal. Not even in the dentists’ surgery. (One of the dentists couldn’t abide tropical fish.) Her mother had been allergic, or said she was, and her father was scared of getting tangled with some damn idiotic fluff-ball with his walking stick. Pat listened carefully to Anna’s instructions pertaining to the care and feeding of Simon. She read the information sheet and a book entitled ‘Ideal Dog’. She commenced the dog sitting operation with a deep sense of duty. She walked Simon before she went to work and as soon as she got home.

One sunny day she even left work at lunchtime to give Simon an outing. She enjoyed it so much she made a habit of it. She began to look forward to going home. She looked forward to opening the door and seeing Simon rush towards her, smiling with all his enthusiasm, with his ears flopping and his tail thrashing with joy. She found his unconditional welcome utterly delightful. She surprised herself when she actually burst out laughing as Simon played with his dog friends in the park. She looked forward to seeing Buster and Shep and Glyn and Molly and their human parents every night as the sun lowered over the gardens.

On the day she went to buy pet food from the supermarket she was amazed to find an entire aisle dedicated to the feeding of companion animals. There were pet foods, pet treats, pet toys and even bells for budgies. This was an aisle she’d never before had occasion to visit and she took her time going from cat supplies, past fish and into puppy and then dog, surrounded by bright packets and photos of adorable pets. Pat could have picked up the brand that Anna preferred straightaway but she was distracted by the choice available and she felt she had to examine the offerings for herself. She picked up tin after tin, noticing enticing photographs and reading lists of ingredients. She was so absorbed in her research that she jumped when a deep voice said, ‘At least there’s no horse.’ And then he chuckled.

Pat almost ducked but realised he did not yet know to pat her head. He was taller than her and she felt she knew him from somewhere. She did not think she had seen him at a dental conference and she could not imagine where else he could have been. Even as she ran her brain through the dental surgery database, she was trying to understand what he had said and rather surprised that he would mention horse in this context. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oh, you know they say dog food is full of horse meat?’

She stared at him before she had to admit she did not know that. Or rather she shook her head and implied as much.

‘Apparently,’ he went on, ‘Members of the pet food association have professed the only meat in the tin is that described on the label. So I don’t know what kind of meat “meat products” are.’ He picked up a tin, squinted at the ingredients and indicated the list to her. ‘There you go, in the beef and macaroni, “meat products”. What do you make of that?’

He waited, apparently expecting a rational answer. Pat stared at him in some kind of wonder. Is this how normal people conducted themselves in supermarkets? She had not expected to discuss horses with a stranger in the pet food aisle. It wasn’t her thing to chat to strangers. She only rarely had to take over reception duties these days, perhaps at lunchtime or when Rosemary had an appointment or Ling had to pick up one of her children. She tended to avoid using the front door in case she might bump into a patient by mistake and have to make polite conversation.

She smiled, rather awkwardly, at the charming man, and said, ‘I hadn’t really thought about it.’

‘Not many people do,’ he said. ‘But where do you think all those failed racehorses go?’ She didn’t know and wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, backing away slightly. ‘I don’t want to hassle you.’

‘Thanks,’ she said. He turned to go but then turned back and said, ‘You could google it.’

‘I intend to,’ she said. She was starting to enjoy this meeting. She was experiencing a feeling in the pet food aisle she’d never experienced before and she was grateful when he asked another question. ‘What’s your dog’s name?’

‘Oh, he’s not my dog,’ she said and, feeling her reply was inadequate, she added, ‘He’s my sister’s. I’m just looking after him while they’re away. She’s spending a month in Paris. They saved up for years. She’ll be away another week. I’ve never had a pet. Taken a bit of getting used to but I think he’s happy now.’

He watched her, tilted his head to one side and smiled encouragingly at her. ‘His name?’ She laughed at her verbosity and said, ‘Simon.’

‘Simon says. Good name. Maybe I’ll see you, then. Watch out for those mysterious meat products.’ He disappeared toward the checkout and he had gone. What an extraordinary encounter. What had made him stop and talk to her? Pat shook her head free of him. She had a dog to feed.

Pat bought Simon some chicken with vegies and rice, some kangaroo with pasta and some lamb and cheese for animal consumption only. ‘None of them,’ she giggled quietly to herself, ‘Mention horse. Horse and cous cous, perhaps? Horse and oats?’ As she scraped the unappetising mess from the tin into Simon’s little dish at Anna’s flat she examined it carefully. What did she expect? That there’d be a hoof plonked in there? No one could possibly tell what type of meat it was. It was brownish gunge with more or less lumpy bits that may or may not have been rice and vegies.

Simon tucked into it like a small wolf and Pat left him to it. She sat down at Anna’s computer and googled pet food. There was a lot of information about horsemeat. It was the meat product that dare not say its species. Apparently most of the failed youngsters were not for pet food at all but exported for human consumption. Fancy restaurants across Europe and Japan prepared low-fat imported horse treats with élan and a high price tag.

That night Pat had a dream. In her dream a little grey mare sang to her. Even though her eyes were blinkered they looked right at her and beseeched. Even in her dream, Pat had a vague memory about a song she’d had to sing in one of her primary schools, wasn’t there a mournful eye on the way to market? Not this little grey horse, she wasn’t on the way to market, not immediately, not so she thought, but Pat could see, even in her dream, the knackery would call soon and the price would not be high. The horse did, however, have a mournful eye. The grey mare was old and cold and thin. Her skin was the colour of grey marble, swirled and mottled, and in Pat’s dream, she pulled behind her a little wooden cart with unsteady wheels.

Pat stood on her dream footpath and watched the little blinkered horse go by. A man with a whip sat carelessly in transit behind her as the little horse sang, with a quavery voice: ‘The lights are always red. They just flash Green and orange In between.’ The dream horse hefted her feet of granite shod with lead and heaved heavy footstep after heavy footstep forward along Pat’s dreamscape road. As the horse drew near to Pat, she looked at her directly, and sang, with her teeth showing and pointing absolutely right at Pat, ‘You’ve got work to do.’

Pat woke with heavy heart, dragged her own human body to the bathroom, looked in the mirror and felt the grey mare twining through her mind like smoke. She could not tell if the horse had a high voice or a low voice or any voice at all. Just that the voice had reached and etched into her with some kind of horse sense like an inoculation. As well as the voice, the horse’s eyes had touched into her and burned a need too. It was just a dream but what a dream and such a horse and Pat couldn’t shake it.

It felt like a haunting. She sat at her desk in the dentists’ office, went online and selected a photo of a horse to be her new desktop image. The horse was tawny chestnut with a pale mane and a tail the colour of butter. It stood in a paddock with some kind of yellow flower in the foreground. It was a delicious photo. Pat had brown hair and brown eyes and perhaps that was why she tended to wear brown clothes. She was slim, perhaps because she was not very interested in food. She had never been aware of being hungry. Now, walking Simon two or three times a day, she did look forward to her omelette or lamb chop in the evening.

Pat popped in to the library to where her friend Tabreesha worked. She asked Tabreesha what she thought about horseflesh. Once they’d reminisced about Black Beauty and Elyne Mitchell and K. M. Peyton, Tabreesha showed Pat to 179.3, the Dewey animal code. There Pat found Peter Singer and took him home with her. From then on Pat would often spend her lunchtime reading about animals, particularly horses. One day the dentist was startled to find her watching footage of horses in the auctioneer’s yard on his computer. He joked about having to plough up the car park to make a paddock for her new hobby. She didn’t understand his humour.

When her sister came home from Paris, Pat went back to the place where her parents had died and called the painters. Tradespeople moved in for six months and then Pat called the real estate agency. As the house became market ready, Pat investigated the local animal rights organisation. She went to a meeting and joined a discussion group. The first discussions offered ideas in living simply on the earth. It offered hope and practical ideas and some support in understanding that her discomfort in society’s treatment of animals was not alone. She took great consolation from that group of like-minded people. They read widely and began to take action in their own lives. Everyone was surprised how quickly their rubbish could be minimised if shopping was done carefully, avoiding packaging. How much water could be saved if watering was done in the morning or at night. How much power was saved if machines were turned off at the wall each time.

She ate less meat, she joined a food co-op and she never purchased plastic bags again. She volunteered to assist with their finances. She was satisfied because she was useful; more than just useful, she became very busy indeed. One day, as she sorted through a heap of receipts in the animal rights’ office she looked up and caught the eye of the pet-food-aisle man. He looked directly at her and smiled, apparently pleased to see her. She was taken aback and nodded at him. She felt shy. He was clearly in the middle of a meeting, the two activists flanking him talking urgent publicity-speak and they all left before she could even muster a smile in return. She stared at the space where he had been and wondered what he was doing there. Then she concentrated on the paperwork in front of her and shook her head at the cost of printing in soy inks on recycled paper.

She borrowed Simon whenever she had spare time and took him for a walk around her new local park. She now lived in a small bright Art Deco apartment in a suburb with many cafés and a polyglot population. She reinvented herself, becoming animated, laughing more as she spoke about preparing vegan food for a publicity event, spending more time chatting to the patients in the foyer of the dentists’ office and gesturing with her hands in quite a graceful manner.

One day, in the school holidays, she took her niece into the city to see a play. It was a load of nonsense performed by rough and shouty students and they’d enjoyed it. After some banter in the foyer they’d come out looking for lunch. As they stood on the footpath, they saw a pair of horses pulling a tourist carriage along Swanston Street. The blinkered horses were decked out absurdly, wearing red casino-like feather headdresses, and the man, sitting behind and above them in the comfort of the cart, was wearing a long Dry-as-a-bone raincoat and an Akubra hat. He flicked the horses with his whip more than once. He used his entire arm and they moved forward slightly faster but only just.

As she heard that whip crack, Pat was overcome by images. She seemed to spin out of her body and refocus as a different being. This was no dream. This was transportation in full vivid daylight. Thoughts and feelings churned in her; traffic noise, juddering truck brakes, fumes, shouts from drunken men, shrieks of tourist hilarity, flashes of camera brilliance, sly pinches, flicks and burns from missiles and in general there was grinding ache in her feet, misery of the hard, continuous road and her wretched inability to go anywhere except where the driver and his whip intended. Her companion beside her in the stocks was even more debilitated than she; most of her energy went to urge him forward. If he stumbled then so did she. She needed to keep both of them going, both keeping onward, onward to the rhythm of movement. It was better than slowing and feeling the sting of the driver’s frustration on their backs. They both longed for the time when they could stop, hold one foot off the ground and pitch into a nosebag full of roughage and, until that moment came, they would keep going, hoping that rest would come sooner rather than later.

Pat’s senses shuddered back into her own limited body and there she was, waiting at the roadside with her niece again, watching to see when the lights would change and the little man-figure would flash, giving them permission to walk. The exchange could not have lasted for more than three seconds, yet it was so vibrant and so punishing, she felt exhausted. She took her niece into a nearby café, glad to sink down onto a banquette and sip a glass of water to recover. Her niece was concerned. Pat explained her ‘turn’ as an overdose of empathy.

Whatever it was, it affected her even more strongly than her dream. It bit into her consciousness and stayed with her, echoing through the days that followed. It was as though a large old bell had sounded somewhere deep in her solar plexus and kept on sounding, shaking every cell in her spine, reverberating down her limbs and continuing right through her hair and fingernails.

The next time was also accidental and also overpowering. Pat had been shopping in the city with Anna and suddenly portable roadside rails stood in their path. A brass band echoed from the flinty sky; the sisters had walked into a parade. Bright silky flags turned out to be giant jockeys’ outfits, different dazzling colours in the shape of shirts, each held aloft by a man marching, cutting a fabulous swathe down the road. The horses preparing to run the annual Melbourne Cup race marched through the city streets with their human minders clinging to their bridles. Shining horseflesh was exhibited to the masses of humans for their judgement and financial approbation. This time a gleaming mahogany mare rolled her eyes and arched her neck and caught up Pat into sharing consciousness.

This time a pang of loss so deep echoed through Pat’s frail human frame she thought she could not bear it. This horse was one of the chosen few, a previous winner. The mare understood full well she was one of the survivors, the crème de la crème, used for breeding stock and most of her children destined, eventually, for the boiling pot. The horse’s thoughts and nerves were tuned only to her babies. Each year she lost another child to the ongoing conveyor of racing. Each child she had ever had disappeared into the slog of running, driven ever forward in testing and training for the track.

Pat could hear and feel this mother’s sorrow and her experience of the same routine for the mare knew what was expected. She personally had had to journey through those same ranks as those her children now endured: the training, the endless running and the cut of the whip. She knew the slippery churn of mud or the angled impact of hardened sun-dried rock under hoof. This mare understood the clatter of small-wheeled rooms of transport and, milling with unpredictable horses, the forceful drive into the metal framed box that faced forward ready for the rush into the wind and the ultimate release of the race. The pelting onwards, fleeing the bite of whips and all around her, the shouts, cackles and screeches of brightly coloured gaudy creatures clamouring at trackside. She also knew the relief of success, somehow disguised in speed, feed and wonder of silent rest as breathing air scraped down raw pipes into her bloody screaming lungs at finish. After the rush would come more transport and then solitary confinement and echoes from other horses in nearby stalls. Thoughts and images about disappearances, their final showing, perhaps a fall, perhaps loss, perhaps no hope and skin and bone and they had gone. Gone to the dogs, gone to be shipped away, slipped away, so many rumours around the stables, and no old horses ever near.

Pat shook with knowledge and came to, recognising her sister’s merry laugh, hearing her decision and seeing her pointing at the horse wearing the blue and purple that she would vote for with her one annual bet. Pat shuddered in her shoes. She did not like to think of the gamble those horses ran in their very existence. She could not bear to see them any more. Her sister couldn’t understand. ‘But they’re beautiful.’

‘They have no choice,’ said Pat.

‘They go into retirement,’ said Anna.

‘Why would anyone feed them when they’re retired? Think about it, Anna. It’s business.’

‘You don’t have to watch.’

‘No, of course not, but you see it, don’t you, you see it on the news, when they fall at the jumps and have to be put down. When they pull that screen around, ask yourself, what are they hiding?’

Another day she manned an information stall outside Sandown racecourse. The group was focussing attention on banning whips in racing and Pat was surprised when the man from the pet food aisle appeared beside her. He listened as she commenced her explanation about cruelty to horses, particularly in jumps racing, and he smiled. She realised he must have heard it all before and became embarrassed. He insisted it was fine, he liked to hear her talk. She noticed he had a gap between his teeth and she noticed his hair was grey at the temples. He seemed to know exactly who she was. He said he’d heard she’d been doing excellent work in the office and she was astounded that anyone could have talked about her when she wasn’t there. She found it difficult to imagine why anyone would be interested in her.

As she looked up at this man, she could see he really was interested in her and suddenly she wanted to know all about him and, more strangely to her, she wanted to see herself through his eyes. People didn’t normally notice her; she wore brown camouflage after all. Now that she had a perky Edgar’s Mission cap over her short hair and she was draped in an apron that splashed ‘Vegan Gladiator’ over her flat chest, she felt perhaps she had become rather more interesting. She offered him a chickpea, lentil and sunflower nugget and he smiled, took one and ate it in one bite. She gave him another.

It turned out the other activists knew him well. She was in awe when she found out he was based in London and had written a book about the history of Animal Liberation in Australia. He was an aspiring politician and his name was Matteo. He appeared beside her again when it came time to pack up. He helped her to carry things to the rented van. He was very useful. He smiled at her so she could not say no when he asked if she could please join him for dinner? She sat beside him when they drove the ezi-up tent, the cooking equipment and the leftover literature back to the office.

After they’d unpacked and locked the van, they went to a restaurant and they talked. They talked about so many things. He spoke about the action planned for the next day. He would be travelling to Warrnambool to film jumps-racing events. Pat was sorry she could not be there. The dentists needed her. It was tax time. The candle at their table went out. After the waiter replaced it, the draft from the front door blew it out again. It was getting late but Matteo joked they did not need the candle relit; they had light enough between them.

Pat was happy. Happier than she’d ever been and he drove her back to her flat. When he stopped the car, they kept their distance and they agreed to see each other soon and, yes, he did have her number. He admitted taking it from the office file. He was sorry, that was probably against all the privacy rules, but he’d never called it and she didn’t mind because it made no difference, he could call her any time and she was glad he had it and he took out his phone and he called her right then and there and when her phone went she answered and was surprised to hear his voice even though she was still right next to him in the car and had watched him tap her contact number and she was happy to hear him say now she had his number and he’d be glad if she would call him any time and it was silly and funny and she smiled into the phone and he said, ‘You’re supposed to talk now.’

‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said, ‘I hope.’

And he said, ‘I hope so, too.’

And they were looking at each other and smiling so then he said, ‘And now you hang up.’

And she did and he did and they put down their phones and looked at each other, still smiling. She couldn’t see how to prolong the moment any further and she got out of the car and he waved through the window, saying he would call her tomorrow and then he drove off.

The next day she was somewhat surprised how difficult it was to focus on her normal routine in the dentists’ office. The dentist had to request the whereabouts of a file more than once and Ling had to call her name again and again to get her attention. He texted her, ‘Are you free for dinner? Call later. XX.’

She stared at those two crosses on the face of her mobile phone. Many of her fellow activists used emoticons to punctuate their messages but never had two crosses held such promise. When she arrived home, worried about what she might wear that night, she turned on the television to find out if the Warrnambool action had attracted any media.

That was when she discovered that an animal rights activist had been killed. A truck driver had allegedly driven into Matteo outside the race meeting. There had been confusion and chaos after two horses had been put down during the day. An enquiry would be held. It was the single most effective awareness raising exercise that had ever occurred in Australia and the most awful.

Pat’s burning anger was central to their group setting up a tent at Occupy Melbourne. She rolled up her sleeves and went to work, preparing vegan treats for the protesters and any other city dwellers in need.

The horse was wearing armour and the police officer sitting on his glossy back was stern and fierce and looked like a robotic warrior in his plastic helmet. The officer pushed the horse forward into the protesters and Pat looked up and saw his muscular neck crane around. She understood when the horse began to panic. He was a magnificent black creature with a broad strong chest and Pat was swept forward by the push of strong-smelling humanity striving to get away from the creature.

Pat reached up her arms to embrace the horse. She thought only of comforting him and the horse was sweating and wet and smelled of hay. She was weeping as her arms were grabbed and pulled behind her and she may have lost consciousness as her head hit the road. She hardly felt anything as the police shifted her from one to another and opened up the van and pushed her inside.

She loved the smell. It enveloped her the moment she entered the shop. It was the smell of new fabric, clean and soft and beguiling. There was lace and wool and cotton and safety. There was potential and purpose and comfort. There were embroideries along one wall, on another, woollen baby blankets with beautiful flowers, patchwork suggestions and on the last wall, wool; wool for tapestry. She ran her fingers along the wall of green into blue and breathed them all in as if they formed a hill of aromatic herbs; mint, tarragon, verbena, oregano.

‘Can I help you?’ The assistant was happy to show Pat all the various tapestries available, each in their plastic bag, each with their designated allotment of wool; designs with patterns and flowers and scenes. Pat knew immediately, as soon as she saw it, which one she would take.

Her new doctor was very well-groomed. He wore a white shirt and black trousers and very shiny black shoes. He sat on a chair facing the couch. Pat sat on the couch facing the packet of tissues placed at a forty-five degree angle on the coffee table in front of her. ‘How are you finding the Effexor, Pat?’

‘Good, thank you.’

‘No side effects?’

‘Um, I don’t think so.’

‘Great. Tell me what’s been happening in the last three days.’

‘I took your advice.’

‘Remind me?’

‘I bought a tapestry. Do you want to see?’

‘I remember, we talked about a hobby, that’s right. Please. I’d be most interested.’

Pat busied herself unpacking the canvas. She had commenced already, sewing the first few lines with care. She showed the doctor the painted design.

The tapestry showed a mare as she galloped into the wind, her mane streaming out along her neck and her tail like a flag behind her. Her foal ran beside her and they both stretched out in the sheer joy of movement.

‘Would you like to … ?’ He indicated her tapestry, ‘ … work as we talk?’

She nodded. She was serious. ‘That would be good. Yes. Thank you.’

She picked up some brown wool to continue with the landscape that formed the background to the horses. She threaded the needle.

The doctor watched.

The horses were running, running, running and her stitches came again and again, covering the ground, covering the horses and she did not stir from that chair. The stitches of brown wool went onward and onward and, one by one, neatly and methodically, she filled in all the gaps, pulling wool, silent now, over all the things that mattered.

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Bed covered in valium tablets
Cama Valium – valium bed – by Joana Vasconcelos