When Sarah’s grandfather gives her a beautiful horse named Boo—hoping that one day she’ll follow in his footsteps to join an elite French riding school, away from their gritty London neighborhood—she quietly trains in city’s parks and alleys. But then her grandfather falls ill, and Sarah must juggle horsemanship with school and hospital visits.
Natasha, a young lawyer, is reeling after her failed marriage: her professional judgment is being questioned, her new boyfriend is a let-down, and she’s forced to share her house with her charismatic ex-husband. Yet when the willful fourteen-year-old Sarah lands in her path, Natasha decides to take the girl under her wing.
But Sarah is keeping a secret—a secret that will change the lives of everyone involved forever.
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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 toward London, the flatlands of Cambridgeshire segueing into the gray, 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 specialty, 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 favorite."
"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.
"I'm pretty sure that's okay." She remembered her diary was back in her briefcase. "Oh. No. I've got someone in."
The woman tapped her on the shoulder. Natasha placed her hand over the receiver. "I'll be two seconds," she said, more brusquely than she had intended. "I know this is a non-mobile carriage and I'm sorry, but I do need to finish this call."
She stuck the phone between ear and shoulder, struggled to find her diary, then spun round in exasperation when the woman tapped her again.
"I said I'll only-"
"Your coffee is on my jacket."
She glanced down. Saw the cup balanced precariously on the hem of the cream jacket. "Ah. Sorry." She picked it up. "Linda, can we switch this afternoon around? I must have a gap somewhere."
Her secretary's cackle rang in her ears after she had snapped shut her phone. She crossed out the court appearance in her diary, added the meeting and was about to put it back in her bag when something in the newspaper headline opposite caught her eye.
She leaned forward, checking that she had read the name in the first paragraph correctly. She leaned so far forward that the man holding the newspaper lowered it and frowned at her. "I'm sorry," she said, still transfixed by the story. "Could I-could I have a very quick look at your paper?"
He was too taken aback to refuse. She took the newspaper, flipped it over and read the story twice, the color draining from her face, then handed it back. "Thank you," she said weakly. The teenager beside her was smirking, as though he could hardly believe the breach of passenger etiquette that had taken place in front of him.
Sarah cut the second square of sandwiches twice diagonally, then wrapped both sets carefully in greaseproof paper. One she placed in the fridge, the other she tucked carefully into her bag with two apples. She wiped the work surface with a damp cloth, then scanned the little kitchen for crumbs before she turned off the radio. Papa hated crumbs.
Far below, the distant whine of the milk float signaled its departure from the courtyard. The milkman wouldn't deliver up the stairs anymore, not since someone had driven off with his float while he was on the fifth floor. He still put out bottles for the old ladies in the sheltered housing opposite, but everyone else had to go to the supermarket, then lug their liter cartons back on overcrowded buses or haul them on foot in bulging shopping bags. If she made it down there, he'd let her buy one; most mornings she made it.
She checked her watch, then the filter paper to see whether the dark brown liquid had drained through. She told Papa every week that the real stuff cost loads more than instant, but he just shrugged and said that some savings were a false economy. She wiped the bottom of the mug, then walked into the narrow hallway and stood outside his room.
"Papa?" He had long since stopped being Grandpapa.
She pushed the door with her shoulder. The little room was glowing with the morning sunlight and for a minute you could pretend outside was somewhere lovely, a beach or a country garden, instead of a tired 1960s public housing project in East London. On the other side of his bed a small bureau gleamed, his hair and clothes brushes neatly lined up below the photograph of Nana. He had not had a double bed since she'd died; there was more space in his room with a single, he said. She knew he couldn't face the emptiness of a large bed without her grandmother in it.
The old man pushed himself up from the pillow and scrabbled on the bedside table for his glasses. "You're going now? What's the time?"
"Just after six."
He picked up his watch and squinted at it. He looked curiously vulnerable in his pajamas, this man who wore his clothes as if they were a uniform. Papa was always properly dressed. "Will you catch the ten past?"
"If I run. Your sandwiches are in the fridge."
"Tell the mad cowboy I will pay him this afternoon."
"I told him yesterday, Papa. He's fine."
"And get him to put some eggs by. We'll have them tomorrow."
She made the bus, but only because it was a minute late. Puffing, she hurled herself on board, her bag swinging wildly behind her. She showed her pass, then sat down, nodding to the Indian woman who sat in the same spot opposite every morning, her mop and bucket still in her hand. "Beautiful," the woman said, as the bus pulled past the betting shop.
Sarah glanced behind her, at the grimy streets illuminated in the watery morning light. "Going to be," she conceded.
"You will be hot in those boots," the woman said.
Sarah patted her bag. "Got my school shoes in here," she said. They smiled awkwardly at each other, as if, after months of silence, they were embarrassed to have said so much. Sarah settled back in her seat and turned to the window.
The route to Cowboy JohnÕs took seventeen minutes at this time of the morning; an hour later, when the roads to the east of the city were clogged with traffic, it would take almost three times as long. She was usually there before him, the only person to whom he would give a spare set of keys. Most days, she would be letting out the hens by the time he came sauntering, stiff-legged, up the road. You could usually hear him singing.
Sheba, the Alsatian, barked once as Sarah fiddled with the padlock on the wire gate, then, realizing who it was, sat and waited, her tail beating an expectant tattoo. Sarah threw her a treat from her pocket and walked into the little yard, closing the gates with a muted crash behind her.
Once, this part of London had been dotted with stable-yards, tucked at the end of narrow, cobbled streets, behind barn doors, under arches. Horses had pulled the brewery drays, the coal and rag-and-bone carts, and it had not been unusual to see a much-loved family cob or a couple of fine trotters out for a circuit of the park on Saturday afternoon. Cowboy John's was one of the few that remained, taking up some four railway arches, with three or four stables and lockups built into each, at the far end of a lane that ended on the high street. There was a walled yard in front of the arches, with a cobbled floor, in which were stacked pallets, chicken coops, bins, a skip or two, and whatever old car Cowboy John was selling, plus a brazier that never went out. Every twenty minutes or so a commuter train would rumble overhead, but neither humans nor animals took any notice. Chickens pecked, a goat took a speculative bite of whatever it was not supposed to eat, and Sheba's amber eyes gazed warily out at the world beyond the gates, ready to snap at anyone who was not on her register.
Twelve horses were resident at the moment, including twin Clydesdales owned by Tony, the retired drayman; the fine-necked, wild-eyed trotters of Maltese Sal and his betting cohorts; and an assortment of scruffy ponies kept by local children. Sarah was never sure how many people knew they were there-the park keeper, who regularly chased them off the common, did and occasionally they received letters addressed to "The Horse Owners, Sparepenny Lane Arches," threatening court action if they continued to trespass. Cowboy John would laugh and throw them into the brazier. "Far as I know, horses was here first," he would drawl.
He claimed to be an original member of the Philadelphia Black Cowboys. They weren't real cowboys-not the cattle-ranching kind, at least. In America, he said, there were city yards like his, bigger ones, where men could keep and race their animals, and young kids came to learn and escape lives that were otherwise ghetto bound. He had arrived in London in the sixties, following a woman who had turned out to be "way, way too much trouble." He had liked the city, but missed his horses so much that he had bought a broken-kneed thoroughbred from Southall market and some near-derelict Victorian stables from the council. As far as anyone could tell, the council had regretted it ever since.
Cowboy John's was an institution now, or a nuisance, depending on where you stood. The officials from the town hall didn't like it, forever issuing warnings about environmental health and pest control, even though John told them they could sit out here all night dipped in cheese sauce and they wouldn't see one rodent-he had a posse of mean cats. Property developers didn't like it because they wanted to stick their blocks of flats there and Cowboy John wouldn't sell. But most of the neighbors didn't mind: they stopped by daily to chat to him, or buy whatever fresh produce he had on offer. The local restaurants liked it: sometimes Ranjeet or Neela from the Raj Palace called in if they needed hens or eggs or the odd goat, and then there were a few like Sarah, who was there whenever she didn't have to be at school. With its tidy Victorian stables and teetering stacks of hay and straw, it was a refuge from the relentless noise and chaos of the city streets around it.
"You let that fool goose out yet?"
She was throwing hay to the ponies when Cowboy John arrived. He was wearing his Stetson-in case people didn't get the message-and his hollow cheeks were burnished with the effort of walking and smoking in the already warm sun.
Reading Group Guide
1. Sarah and Natasha come from different classes. The problems they face may vary, but both are struggling to act nobly. Is it harder to do the right thing from a lower-class or upper-class position? How does this book confirm or disprove that?
2. How do you think Sarah’s life would be different if she would have listened to her headmaster and concentrated on her studies instead of Boo? Some people would say that formal education is the most crucial part of an adolescent’s life. How is that true for Sarah?
3. When Sarah is trying to convince Thom to take her and Boo to France, she says “It was as if he could see everything, her dishonesty, her vulnerability, not in the way Maltese Sal had, as if he was stripping away every bit of her that was worth something, but with a kind of sympathy. It was worse” (p. 342). Why, for Sarah, is having Thom see her cry worse than her encounter with Maltese Sal?
4. When Sarah is talking to Thom about Le Cadre Noir she says, “Papa always said that when he came to Le Cadre Noir it was the first time in his life he had felt understood. Like there were just a few other people in the world who spoke his language and all of them lived in that one place” (p. 353). Is there a place for you that is like this? If there is, describe it. If there isn’t, describe what it would be like.
5. What makes it possible for people who fall out of love to fall back in love again? What made it possible for Natasha and Mac?
6. What was your reaction to the formal and disciplined way that Henri raised Sarah? In what ways did this type of upbringing help her? In what ways may it have hindered her?
7. At one point Sarah says “You know like I do that sometimes telling the truth makes things worse, not better” (p. 430). Do you find this to be accurate? How has it been true for the characters in this book? How has it not been true?