“May you live in interesting times.”
That is the phrase used by the ancient Chinese to wish doom upon their enemies. In these tempestuous times, it feels good to remember other moments when life had different and more mellow ways to be “interesting”. Not many people know of my travels with a horse-drawn caravan, way back in the twentieth century; almost another world, one where anything could happen and frequently did.
There are many places this story could begin. One is the moment I first saw the horse who was to pull the caravan from here to there and back again, from London to Scotland over the course of several years. Until then I had only known horses who appeared all legs, built for riding or racing. This fellow was the opposite. So much and so solid a body standing in that field that it took a moment to notice the four sturdy legs, one at each corner, that would move us down the road. He had a thick coat of white patched with brown, a skewbald. I learned later that he was a Welsh Cob, technically a pony but he looked more like a smaller version of the horses that pulled the brewer’s drays: a Shire or a Clydesdale. I knew as soon as I saw him that he would do the job. I had been looking for a while and seen a few others that would have collapsed at the first hill. The story of the caravan is the tale of how we got to know each other and grew into a deep and everlasting friendship. His name at that time was Nobbie.
Nobbie was four years old and had been trained to pull a fruit and veg cart around the hilly town of High Wycombe. That might have been his whole life but his owner grew sick and could no longer ply his trade. So I was to become the lucky guy who took over. Nobbie is a traditional name and seemed a tad too dull for my romantic tastes. Pretty soon he metamorphosed into Abbie, or to give him his full name Abraxas. The god of black (or brown) and white, darkness and light, good and evil, yin and yang. Slowly slowly, as we travelled together, I was to discover that you cannot have one of these without the other. Sure enough, when I looked into his eyes I found that while the left eye was perfectly normal, in the right what should have been the “white of the eye” was so dark a brown it looked quite black. One eye was white and the other was black. To me that signified a magical horse. Which was not a surprise, for the whole adventure began with a magical unfolding…
A few weeks before I met Abbie, I was in my room at the top of my parents’ house in London. We lived near Portobello Road and the view over the roof tops was like something out of ‘Mary Poppins’. Sitting up there I felt on top of the world. The grey rooftops of day had turned sparkly silver in the moonlit night and I could see a long way. The Post Office Tower loomed over everything – at once familiar and eerie, red lights flashing out high over the city. In winter the fogs were something to behold but tonight was clear and bright.
With me were my sister and my girl-friend Lilian. My sister is Amanda. You can imagine three young hippies sitting there in the candle light; me with long hair, dark brown verging on black, and the beginnings of a beard. Amanda’s hair was amazing: the colour of red-gold. Lilian was pale and slender, yet not so fragile as she looked, with long yellow hair. Candles were lit around the room and a few incense sticks were burning, spreading a gentle fragrance. Lilian had her guitar with her as always but tonight it was laid aside.
We sat around a large sheet of paper; paint boxes, brushes and coloured pencils were scattered round us. Lilian drew a very perfect smiling sun, a mandala in yellow and orange. Amanda made a brilliant rainbow shining over the whole picture. I painted a young man with long dark brown hair, verging on black, and the beginnings of a beard. He was sitting on the front board of a little barrel top caravan, painted red and yellow with a green canvas roof. The reins in his hand lay over the back of skewbald horse who was pulling the caravan.
I am no great painter but it was all clear enough. Not so remarkable, except for what happened in the following weeks. We had been in a playful mood with no special intentions, yet that picture became real life! Whether we were tuned into the future or creating it, this all really happened. Amanda can tell you so and she is no fantasist.
I had thankfully finished school and was beginning to fall in love with life, having spent the last several years determined to hate every moment. Amanda was still taking the No 31 bus to Camden every week day morning. Between us we had taken that bus to school for the last ten years, in every kind of weather and through many a traffic jam. This morning though was different.
About half way through the journey, she saw from the upper deck, sitting outside a little antique shop, more of a junk shop really, a barrel top Gipsy caravan. The roof was a green canvas and on the back was a large sign reading “For Sale”.
When Amanda came running in to tell me about it that afternoon, we both knew this was not a coincidence and that this caravan must be ours. This was magic in action – whether we had seen the future or manifested it. Pooling our savings and a small inheritance, we headed fro the antique shop as soon as we could, to take a look. From the outside the caravan was everything I could have hoped for, an original. The wooden wheels were bound with iron hoops. Small carved flowers decorated both sides. When we went in, we were struck by how very small it was. You could only stand up in the middle and the benches at each side fitted neatly under the curve of the roof. There was a tiny wood-burning stove with stove pipe poking through the roof. At the back was a bed, which slid into itself like an over-sized drawer during the day, giving more a little more room. We were in love.
After that, negotiating a price and buying the caravan followed smoothly. Now the caravan could not sit on the side of the road forever and finding a horse was another story. I had no idea where to start, until I had a chat with the rag and bone man. He had driven his horse and cart along our street once a week for as long as I could remember, calling out “Any Old Iron”. He had done it for so long you could hardly make out the words. He showed us a scrawny looking mare, down at the yard where the horses were stabled. I knew she was not the one, but this was a start. The friendly vet who looked her over for us was a little shocked. “She wouldn’t make it up the first hill, poor thing,” he said and put me in touch with Eddie Price. Eddie was a gem of a man, although a gem of the rough, uncut and highly unpredictable variety. Abbie was still “Nobbie” then and Eddie knew his owner. He told us about the old man and his heart attack. “Nobbie has pulled that fruit and veg cart up and down every hill in High Wycombe,” Eddie told us. “He is only four years old and he has grown strong. He needs work or he’ll grow fat and soft. The way he is now, he’ll take you wherever you want to go.” And so he did.
The next step was to get the caravan from its spot in the midst of London, thirty-five miles to where Abbie peacefully grazed in his field outside the town of Marlow, below the Chiltern Hills. Easter was approaching and we ready to be off. Eddie, it turned out, having made the deal was in no hurry and hard to get hold of. Once again, I did not know how to get things moving. On Easter Saturday, we had had enough of waiting. My old friend Clive was a lorry driver by profession and he had the day off. He offered to borrow a low-loader and pretty soon we had the caravan happily perched on the back of it. What a sight we were as we made our way out of London and into the country. We did not know quite where we were going but we were determined to get there. I hoped to find Abbie’s field again, pop the caravan into it and present Eddie with a fait accompli. We had only been there once and only a rough idea of where it was. After searching for a bit it became obvious this was not going to work out. We needed a plan B.
Nothing daunted, we drove out of town and found a rarely used back road. There was a parking place at the side under some sheltering trees, with just enough room for us. We unloaded the caravan. It looked perfect in its new home. With hindsight it sounds a little crazy but that is what we did! It all worked out in the end.
That is how it came to be that on Easter Saturday, Lilian and I woke up in that lay-by near the tiny village of Lane End, still without a horse. The caravan seemed really small inside now and very cold. I went outside for some firewood and that problem at least was fixed very quickly. The small space became a bonus, it was so easy to warm it up. The next couple of days were not that great. The village shop was not well stocked. Food was short and Lilian was better at conserving her rations. than I was. We were getting fed up in that tiny space with almost nothing to do all day. Lilian had her guitar. I finished the only book I had brought with me. It began to rain and there was nothing to do but sit it out.
Each time we wanted to talk with Eddie we had to walk to the phone box outside the village pub and he promised that ‘Nobbie’ would be with us soon. The local policeman was growing tired of our explanations as to why we were stuck and unable to ‘move on’. He called Lilian’s mother and confirmed that we were there with ‘motherly’ approval. Lilian had a strong American accent and that appeared to arouse his suspicions. She was clearly a foreigner and that was most unusual in Lane End. We were not sure of his next move. Young love was not enough to sustain us and we grew more and more grumpy.
Then the day we had been waiting for arrived. It was a wonderful sunny morning; the dawn light found its way in through the back window and woke us up. We were hardly in our clothes when Eddie was knocking at the door. Before we knew it we had jumped into his ancient battered Land Rover, squeezed up beside each other and were on our way to find Abbie. First a well-worn set of horse harness was loaded into the back and an equally well-worn horsebox attached behind. Abbie looked surprised to be interrupted in mid-munch at the spring grass, but did not complain as Eddie led him into the box. I had paid for Abbie some days before and now Eddie gave me £5 back. “Old traveller’s habit – give you something back for luck.” A little more luck was all to the good and so was some cash.
With much rattling and rolling we set off down the tiny country lanes. When another car approached Eddie just sat there until they decided to reverse, and before long we were in front of the caravan. Eddie put on the harness, while we watched and wished we had time to take notes. No smart-phone to take a few handy photos. Already it looked complicated. Which strap went where? The enormous black leather collar had to be put over Abbie’s head upside down and then rotated to fit snugly in place. We lifted up the shafts and Eddie backed him up between them and attached the traces to the van. When he did it, it all looked so easy.
We sat up on the front of the van, the step board felt very narrow and precarious. I took the reins, just as in my painting, and as Abbie began to trot the caravan began to rattle its way down the road. I had only been riding a few times but Lilian was convinced she knew all about horses. I was not so sure. It felt quite fast and I was glad to discover he did slow down in response to a gentle pull on the reins. Eddie soon passed us in his Land Rover. In a little while we had passed through Lane End and we certainly were not breaking any speed limits. Still, we felt we were moving along pretty well. We were on our way to Glastonbury, home of the mystical Tor and magnet for people like us. We wanted to be there by the end of Lilian’s holidays.
Abbie stopped. We had travelled about two miles. He began trying to look over his shoulder. “I think he wants to go home,” said Lilian. “Let me try.” She clicked her tongue and rattled on the reins. The big horse remained impervious and tried to get his head down to the grass at the side of the road. There was a nice place to pull off and we decided to rest for a while and let Abbie have something to eat while we had a cup of tea. It took a while to brew up on the old paraffin stove and when we were ready to move on Abbie was ready to trot: for five minutes. I jumped down and went to his head. He allowed me to lead him into a walk. That was our pace for the rest of the day. Whenever we passed a particularly good-looking patch of grass, Abbie would stop for a feed. It was a lovely day and we were enjoying ourselves. We for sure had not travelled more than eight miles when the sun began to set. Where were we going to spend the night? I had never been a Boy Scout and was nothing if not unprepared. I did not trust that passing motorists would notice our candle-powered carriage lamps.
Quite soon we came upon a wide grassy verge at the side of the road. There was very little traffic and it looked as though it would be empty during the night. Life, it turned out, was better prepared than me. We pulled up onto the verge and manoeuvred Abbie until the van was reasonably flat. It was an easy matter to get Abbie out of the shafts and out of harness. He had seemed very content walking all day and now equally happy to finish. We had a stake and chain with us, courtesy of Eddie, who must have been a traveler in his time. I banged in the stake, making sure Abbie could not reach the road and fastened him securely. He began to munch on that grass like there was no tomorrow. Evidently, we had chosen a good spot.
The caravan was snug inside. A few sticks of dry wood gathered along the way were enough to create a blaze in the little fireplace. In a few minutes we were warm and happy. A day on the road had changed the mood and we were enjoying life. The night was quiet and outside we could hear Abbie still chewing away. When he fell quiet, I looked outside. He looked back at me pointedly and I saw that all the fresh grass had either been eaten or trampled. I moved him to another patch and the munching resumed. As the days went on, that sound in the middle of the night would be my reassurance that all was well. I learned to make sure that he was tethered where I could see him out the back window. He did not seem to sleep much and, to my surprise, he did most of his sleeping standing up. Only on a warm night or a hot afternoon would he choose to lie down.
Next morning we were up bright and early. There was a touch of frost across the fields spreading into the edges of the woodlands nearby. First thing was to move Abbie one more time and I realised there was no more water for him to drink. He got through a lot of water. So, rather than getting my breakfast together, I needed to look after him. I set off across the fields, a bucket in either hand. The obvious solution was to find a cattle trough, a lot easier than hunting for the nearest stream. I found one on the fence line that separated the fields from the nearest copse of trees. Not so far away. Nonetheless, the buckets were growing heavy by the time I got back. It took Abbie about fifteen seconds to empty the first and get half-way through the second. I was relieved when he stopped. There was something very happy-making and rewarding in satisfying this simple need. Gathering wood and carrying water were to become an essential part of my daily life, reminding me of the Zen saying Before Enlightenment chop wood fetch water, after Enlightenment, chop wood fetch water.” Slowly I was to discover as the journey went on that my first master on the road to awakening was to be, not a human but this life on the road with Abbie. Nothing was expected, foreseen or predictable, even the route was made up as we went along. Nothing was known and that kept me in the present moment.
I went back inside, hoping for breakfast, perhaps even expecting it. I had been out for a while. No way that was happening, Lilian was playing her guitar. By the time we had everything ready the morning was getting on. It turned out that there was a lot to tidy up and everything had to be secured in place before we could travel on. I learned to fully understand the term ‘ship-shape’. At last, it was time to fetch the harness from its place under the caravan. I had hung it over the axles and that was its spot from then on. Getting Abbie harnessed up turned out to be quite simple – everything fitted together quite naturally. Lilian led Abbie into his position in front of the caravan and I lifted up the shafts. He just needed to step back a couple of paces. She took up the reins and gently encouraged him to move back. He did not budge; she grew firmer and more determined. No result. Lilian looked very small trying to push that big animal into place. I took over. This was one stubborn fellow. He was not interested in moving. It felt like a test. I already had the sense the previous day that Abbie enjoyed his work. That enormous body had been bred for this over generations – his ancestors had carried knights in armour into battle. They had replaced the oxen that used to plough the fields and did it in half the time. After a winter off, he was ready to get back to work. But he wanted to know if we were up to the job. Could we handle this?
After a while a Land-Rover pulled up. A burly farmer stepped out, grinning. “I’ve been working horses since I was a lad,” he told us. “I’ll soon have him hitched up.” We were relieved. he took the reins and leant into Abbie, who stayed solid as a rock. It seemed nothing was going to move him. In the end we had three Land-Rovers parked up beside us and three hefty men shoving for all they were worth. It was a delight to see how ready they were to help these crazy hippies. In a pub or such-like they would probably have avoided us like the plague. When Abbie did eventually move back into the shafts, it felt as though he were doing us a favour. Or became bored of the game. Really, he could have stood there all day. Three strong farmers do not equal one horsepower. Joyfully, I attached the long leather traces that attached Abbie via his collar to the front of the caravan. We were on our way. And it was not long before noon.
Our day was much like the day before, except that we started later and covered less ground. I sought out our route using the wonderfully detailed one inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map. I wanted to avoid the bigger roads and the steepest hills, which made our journey much longer. As the crow flies, I doubt we had covered ten miles from our starting point near lane End when we began to look for a place to stop for the night. I was surprised to notice that the nature of the country we were travelling through had already begun to change, as we moved toward the valley of the Thames River. New features in the landscape, that one does not even notice from a car, were to become an enchanting feature of our days. Less happily, the grassy verges here were too narrow to provide a good stopping place and the light was beginning to fade.
At last we found a strip of grass at the roadside big enough to tether Abbie. I had to put his stake right next to the fence-line to keep him clear of the road, which left only a semi-circle for him to move around in. He did not look very impressed. We had lit the lamps and had a roaring fire going when an old gentleman in a long brown coat came wandering down the road, a gentleman in the broadest sense of the word. Unshaven and a little unsteady on his legs, he turned out to be our saviour that evening. He popped his head over the front door. “What’re you doing with yon horse?” he asked. “That’s no place for him to spend the night. He’s been hard at work all day. Anyway, I knows the geezer that owns that field across the fence. He’s not a bad sort. Let’s put your horse in there. Tell him I said it would be alright. My name’s Len, by the way.”
Putting his words into action, Len took Abbie and I up the lane to the gate and I led Abbie through. As soon as I let him go, he ran halfway round the field and began to roll, his legs kicking up toward the darkening sky. What a sight he was and full of joy. This turned out to be his favourite habit every time he got off his tether and had some space to move around. By the time I had taken a short cut across the fields to find the caravan again, Lilian was halfway through making supper. We were beginning to create the routine that would develop into a caravan way of life.
Next morning we were woken early by loud knocking on the door. I pulled on my trousers and went to see what was up. This time there was a posh-looking Range Rover parked up beside us and an angry man in a smart tweed jacket at the door. “What the deuce are you playing at?” he yelled at me. “How dare you put your ill-bred horse in my field?” I did not like that but he calmed down when I told him of Len and his invitation.
“That was none of his business. But I do know the fellow you mean. A rogue if ever there was one. “Get moving on as soon as you can. And get that animal off my land.” I told him that animal was a Welsh Cob of noble ancestry, a remark he chose to ignore. Once he was out of sight, I made my way through the hedge and found Abbie standing nearby. He looked pleased to see me and easily let me catch him. We walked back across the field and down the lane. I tethered him near the caravan while we had breakfast and he continued his interrupted morning meal.
It was another beautiful spring day, still early April cool, and the air was delicious. Abbie resisted our efforts to get him into the shafts for about ten minutes; then he relaxed and decided it was time to get going. He enjoyed a brisk trot to warm up and then slowed down to his preferred amble. Lilian tried to gee him up to no avail. I was happy to let him set the pace and to enjoy the ever-changing scene.
By the time evening came, we were travelling down a gentle slope between densely wooded thickets and on into a fertile valley. I could see a steep-ish hill leading out the other side, for the valley was small, and I did not want to ask Abbie to go any further. We came to a good patch to pull up at the end of a grassy lane and I saw a farm nearby. Lilian stayed to watch horse and caravan, while I walked up to the farmhouse. To have a chat with the farmer seemed the wiser choice, after yesterday’s experience. He was not surprised to see me; he had passed us on the road. “You won’t want to climb the hill to Nettlebed before tomorrow morning. You’re better off to spend the night down our lane and welcome to it.” We chatted about Abbie; here was another farmer who had worked horses when he was younger and still missed them. When he heard how slowly we were travelling, he explained, “Your horse needs his oats, he’ll go along better with a handful of oats inside him. He won’t pull yon wagon far on grass alone. Not too many, mind you, and not for an hour or so after he has drunk his fill. You don’t want him coming down with the colic.” And so it came about that I found myself trudging back down the lane with a sack full of oats on my shoulder, the first of many gifts that Abbie was to attract on his travels.
That night we slept all the better for knowing we had a friendly neighbour. In the morning Abbie had another good double handful of oats and he trotted along at a lively pace. When he did slow to his usual walk, he still moved along more briskly than the day before. He was gathering energy now after a winter with nothing to do and eager to show off. Soon enough, the day turned chill, the sun was hidden by dark wild clouds and a late snow began to fall. The sleet blew in our faces and it grew too cold to sit on the front board. We retreated behind the neatly split front doors. Now I saw why it was made in four pieces, two above and two below, so I could peer out at the road without letting in too much snow. It did not feel very safe for our view of the traffic was obscured. When we came into Nettlebed, I found a sheltered corner where Abbie was out of the wind and we could rest up for a while. I lit the old paraffin stove and soon we were warm again and drinking a cup of hot tea, waiting until the sun appeared again and we could travel on.
So the days passed and in its own way every little thing that happened was an adventure. Lilian pointed out that Abbie needed a good brushing but it was not so easy to go out and buy a brush and currycomb. We had to wait until we passed through a town large enough to have a saddler’s shop before we could buy them. He was losing his winter coat and when we brushed him the brown and white hair was coming out in clumps, together with flakes of dried sweat. We had obviously left this basic care for far too long; there was a lot I had to learn. Brushing was a great way to get to know him more closely and I began to smell of horse. Getting a good wash was not so easy, with only a small bowl and a kettleful of hot water. In this way, even a morning wash turned out to be a new experience, a fresh beginning. Old ideas and expectations of life were disappearing and I was living moment to moment.
For Lilian it was not the same. My caravan life was beginning and hers was ending and that was leading us to grow apart. In a few days her next school term was to begin and her dream of reaching Glastonbury was also disappearing. Once I woke in the night to hear her pleading in her dream space, “Gee Up, Abbie!”
We began to move down from the Chiltern Hills and into the valley of the Thames, heading for the twin towns of Goring and Streatley, one on either side of the river. This was progress we could feel. I kept us on the back roads whenever I could but to cross the river we had to take a route with more traffic. The cars and lorries on these roads were less tolerant of a slow-moving caravan and we had to stay alert. As we came closer to the river, the hill grew steeper. The brakes on the caravan were unbelievably basic. An iron wheel fastened below the step board we sat upon was turned to pull two brake shoes against the iron rims of the back wheels. Very inefficient – and most of our braking was done by Abbie, who leaned back into the breeching strap fastened around his enormous hindquarters to keep the caravan from gathering speed. As the hill grew steeper, it became too much for him and I was afraid he was going to slip.
Life, existence, call it what you will, took care of us again. Thrown against the hedgerow like a piece of old junk lay a long and sturdy spar of wood cut square and maybe four or five feet long. I slipped it between the wooden spokes of the back wheel, while Lilian took Abbie’s head. It held fast against the hefty wooden axle beam, jamming the wheel solid. Now Abbie was almost having to pull the caravan down the ever-steepening hill, rather than holding it back. I looked behind and saw that we were leaving a trail of molten tar behind us – the metal tyre was practically red hot and we could smell the road surface as it melted….
I had been frightened and felt immense gratefulness to the unseen forces that took care of us. I was not easily convinced that there was any such thing; a Taurean, I prefer things I can see, feel or taste. By now there had been too many coincidences and there were more to come. It was getting harder to doubt the evidence of my own experience, again and again. It felt good to get to the bottom of the hill and I was able to pull the wooden spar from its place between the spokes before we reached the river bridge. Our first river crossing was a milestone on our way. We were entering new territory and leaving the Chilterns.
On the far side of the bridge stood a large cottage or small house, painted white. It was set a little back from the road giving us room to park, a welcome resting place. The white -haired lady who lived there was already at the gate, inviting us in for a cup of tea. She looked as though she had dressed for the occasion but I suppose she was always ready for company, expected or unexpected.
What an idea! Abbie seemed always tranquil and practically bomb proof. Could we tie him to the gate post and trust him with the caravan while we went inside? We did. I gave Abbie a carrot and a bucket of water and we entered the house. Another world. The perfect English lady offering us Earl Grey tea in bone china, accompanied by exquisite biscuits that only a certain class of Englishwoman can lay her hands on. Our guardian angel had an excellent sense of humour.
After regaling our hostess with tales of our adventures so far, we emerged into the pale sun of early afternoon to find Abbie also well-rested and eager to set off again. We rejoined the stream of traffic and I was leading Abbie down the High Street of Shipley when a burly man in his shirt sleeves fell into step beside me. “You’ll need a drag shoe before you tackle another such a hill,” he told me. Your wheels won’t stand that treatment for long. Come along to my smithy. I’ll have one lying around somewhere.” We were glad to leave the busy High Street and enter the quieter back streets. Before long we reached the blacksmith’s shop. The weather was still cool and we were glad of the heat from the bright fire blazing in his forge.
He rummaged around amongst a pile of what looked like scrap metal and pulled out a U-shaped piece of iron, if you can imagine a very rectangular U, attached to a chain. To demonstrate its use, he placed it in front of one of the back wheels and led Abbie a step forward. The wheel slid into the metal shoe. He then found an old hook, threw it into the fire and had his apprentice pump up the bellows until the hook was glowing. He adapted it with a few strokes of his hammer on the anvil, cooled it down and attached it under the van almost above where he had placed the drag shoe. He fastened the chain tight to the hook and led Abbie forward another step. Take a moment to consider the effect. The wheel was tightly jammed, the chain kept it from slipping out of the shoe and a powerful braking effect was achieved. What marvelously simple mechanics. The smith did not want anything for his trouble; he was simply glad to make sure we carried on safe and sound.
For the next few days we travelled peacefully enough, passing through small towns and villages along quiet back roads, until we came to Newbury. This was our biggest town yet. We crossed the Kennet by the narrow Town Bridge, as cars and lorries backed up behind us. Abbie was accustomed to this and did not turn a hair so I learned to relax with it too. We did our best to avoid the busier roads but these river crossings were lively places and full of traffic. Seen from above, our route must have resembled the meanderings of a large watercourse seeking the easy way to flow rather than the shortest or the fastest route. This is the Way of Tao, the watercourse way spoken of by Lao Tzu. I was aware that while Lillian was pressurised by thoughts of her return to school and her everyday life, I was entering more and more deeply into flowing through the days and the moments with no sense of any predetermined endpoint.
By the time we were leaving Newbury it began to rain. We were tired and ready for a halt. It was comforting when a landowner pulled up and offered us a place in her courtyard for the caravan and in her stables for Abbie. She lived just on the outskirts of town and we were soon turning into her driveway. Abbie had the best of hay to eat and I was happy he was out of the weather for the night. Instead of our simple supper from the caravan stove, we dressed up as well as we could for dinner in the great hall. The gods were laughing with us and we all enjoyed ourselves that evening.
The next night was fine and dry. We spent it up a grassy lane with lots of room for Abbie to roam about. So we carried on a few more days, until we reached Burbage Village just south of Marlborough. The time had come for Lillian to return to her home, her mother and the American School in London. She was soon to return to America so there was no next holiday with the caravan for her to look forward to. Our ways were parting and we felt very separate, sad yet not knowing how to fully share the sadness, already alone together. There was no easy way for her to reach London by bus or train so we concluded we must hitch-hike. We parked up on the village green about noon and once more I was making plans on the spur of the moment, needing to make sure that horse and caravan would stay safe and secure while I was away.
I began to knock on the doors of the houses and cottages that surrounded the green. Before long we found an old couple who understood the situation and wanted to help. He came to the door in his waistcoat and breeches, looking every inch a relic of a bygone age. So did his wife, yet we made sense to them. Surely, they said, they would be glad to lend a hand, to move Abbie around the green and to keep him watered. They had lived in Burbage all their days and if any newcomer dared to complain, they would tell them what was what.
By the time Lillian had gathered up her clothes, her guitar and her old fur coat, the caravan looked quite empty. I padlocked the doors, put the harness inside for safety and told Abbie I would return soon. Heading back the way we had come we stuck out our thumbs. In no time we were on the motorway and then flying down Westway, the elevated carriageway that carried us into the heart of London. It was a space jump between realities.
Lillian’s mother was waiting for her at the door. She invited me in and proceeded to thank me for taking care of her daughter and keeping her safe in the country, away from all the risks of the big city. Lillian interrupted to bitterly tell her mother that she was not much younger than me, she did not want to return to the States and should have the freedom to choose her own future. They barely noticed when I left. It was a strange parting.
I walked to my parents’ house, needing some time alone. Soon enough I was telling Amanda all about it and of all that had happened since I saw her last. For once I had more to say than she did and we talked way into the night, up in my room where the story had begun.
Ten thousand flowers in spring
The moon in Autumn
A cool breeze in Summer
Snow in Winter
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things
This is the best season of your life
– Wu Men Hui K’ai (1183 – 1260)
I was up at crack of dawn next morning; it seemed like I had hardly slept. I wanted to make sure that all was well on Burbage Village Green. I walked down to Portobello Road, a quick stroll from my parents’ house, to buy a few essentials such as brown rice and soy sauce. These were not available outside the big city. My sister Amanda came with me. Once we were well stocked, we met up with Clive and he gave us a lift most of the way. It was still morning when we reached the village, with plenty of time to carry on. This was just as well. Some of the newcomers to the village were kicking up a stink about the “gypsies” camped out in the middle of their neat and tidy scene. Our ancient friends and helpers were not amused but glad the fuss was more or less over and they were no longer responsible keeping the peace. The old gent was dressed in his Sunday best to see us off. “My son took some photos,” he told us proudly. “I reckon that is a fine sight on our green, so bright and gaily painted and all. with the horse alongside. He’ll be fed and watered and ready for to travel on.”
I asked Amanda to pick up the shafts, expecting the usual show of resistance. To be continued…