“Ouch, stop leaning on me!” complained the girl, “you’re hurting me you great brute!”
Apollonius the Percheron lowered his giant and gentle head towards her. There was a twinkle in his eye. “She growing up,” he thought, swishing his long feathery tail so that it brushed against her screwed up face. He loved it when she made that face. It was the reason he still had a tail to swish.
“Let me see now. If I trod on your left foot you’d have no foot left!” joked Apollonius the Percheron, who liked to play with words. He also had a very long memory.
He remembered his dam, how big and soft she had been, how she would keep licking him clean until he got fed up with it. Although he had never met his sire, Pythagore, he’d heard the men talking about him when he was still a foal.
“Percherons ought to have their tails docked!” said one of the men, a sallow-faced farm hand called Gabriel who had crooked teeth which were as ugly as a dirty toilet brush.
Apollonius didn’t know what they were talking about but he didn’t like the sound of it.
“Pythagore had his tail amputated and was none the worse for it.”
That was the first time Apollonius had heard Mamzelle’s “I’m angry” voice. She’d come rushing into the stable and stood before the men, hands on her little hips, her face screwed up and her nostrils flaring. Apollonius’s nostrils had twitched, too. She smelt of pepper and dandelions.
“Whoa there, mademoiselle!” said the man with toilet brush teeth, “this is none of your business!”
They all lived in France, where a little miss is called a “mademoiselle”. If you say it properly it sounds like Mad-mwa-zelle.
Apollonius tried to repeat the word in his head but all he could manage was Mamzelle.
“It’s high time Sonny Jim here had his done, too!”
“Because, that’s all. Let’s hear no more of it.”
But as Apollonius soon came to realise, Mamzelle had a way of always getting her way, especially with her daddy.
“She twists you round her little finger,” her mummy had told him one day. It sounded like she was telling him off so Mamzelle ran to cuddle him and glared at her mummy, who said “see what I mean?” Mummies can be funny that way sometimes.
Mamzelle looked it up in a book and discovered that in France you aren’t allowed to chop off a horse’s tail, whatever the breed. Unfortunately, people who live on remote farms deep in the French countryside often take no notice of the law. So off she went again to confront her daddy and Gabriel. She found them by the disused well in the yard, trying to get an old tractor started.
“It’s for his own good!” said Gabriel, “we’ll use my guillotine; he won’t feel a thing.”
It was true that, in the days before tractors, draught horses often had their tails amputated so they wouldn’t get caught up in the farm machines they had to pull. They had a special tool for doing it – a “tail docker” or “guillotine” as they call it in French.
Mamzelle’s face went all red and she angrily brushed aside a lock of hair that kept falling over her eyes.
“How would you like it if I cut your tail off?” she shouted.
“Has to be done. We’ll do him tomorrow morning.”
Mamzelle was horrified. She rushed off to find Apollonius to comfort him.
Pepper and dandelions. Apollonius poked his head out of his stall as soon as she approached.
“I won’t let them do it,” she whispered as she threw her arms around his neck. Then she kissed him on the funny wrinkles between his nostrils.
She drew back to look at him and said in a conspiratorial voice, “don’t worry, I have a plan!”
Apollonius surveyed her calmly. He already possessed much of the poise for which Percherons are famous.
“I know where they keep the guillotine,” whispered Mamzelle.
When Mamzelle came down for breakfast the next morning she was in a good mood.
“What are you looking so pleased about?” her mother asked.
“Oh nothing,” she said, biting into a hunk of country bread and honey.
“I saw you mooching around in the cart shed yesterday. What were you doing?”
“Oh nothing…” replied Mamzelle airily.
“Daddy says he wants to see you immediately. What have you done to upset him?”
“Oh…” began Mamzelle.
“…nothing, I suppose,” her mother interrupted before she had the chance to finish her sentence.
In the cart barn Mamzelle ducked behind a big tractor wheel and peeped around it. On one side of the barn stood an old wooden bench with farm tools and bits of machinery strewn about on its top. Many of them had spiders’ webs strung across them like grey hammocks, all full of dust. The drawers of the bench hung open as if a doctor had just told them to “say ah!”
“Or maybe,” thought Mamzelle, “they’re yawning because they’ve just go out of bed”.
In front of the gaping drawers stood Gabriel.
“I can’t understand it,” he said, “I’m sure it was in here!”
“Maybe you put it somewhere else,” said Mamzelle’s daddy patiently, “I forget things too, sometimes”.
“He’s so nice,” thought Mamzelle, feeling a little guilty.
Gabriel removed the cap he always wore and scratched his head.
“Couldn’t have,” he said, “I sharpened the blade only yesterday.”
Mamzelle had never actually seen what lay beneath that cap before. Gabriel’s hair grew in stubbly wisps like straw, the yellowness contrasting with the sweaty brown colour of his scalp.
“It looks just like…” Mamzelle found herself unable to stifle a giggle, “a dollop of horse manure!”
The men stopped talking.
“Come out from behind that tractor, young lady!”
Apollonius whinnied in his stall. His ears flicked back and forth and he pawed the ground. He sensed tension in the air and didn’t like it. He forced himself to imagine the smell of pepper and dandelions and felt a little better.
Mamzelle felt anger boiling up in her tummy. It was so unfair! She’d been made to confess to removing the guillotine.
“Go and get it please,” said Daddy calmly.
“But I don’t know where it is!”
This was nearly true in that if you throw something down a well you can’t say precisely where it will end up. She’d waited a few seconds until she heard a satisfying “sploosh” at the bottom of the well. It seemed a very long way down; she wouldn’t have liked to fall in there herself.
“This is like stealing. You know I won’t put up with this sort of thing.”
Mamzelle adored her daddy but he could be very annoying sometimes.
“Well, YOU want to steal my horse’s tail!” she cried.
With that she stormed out of the cart barn and marched angrily over to Apollonius’s stall, stamping in puddles as she went.
Mamzelle hardly had time to greet Apollonius before her father arrived with Gabriel in tow. He unhooked a head collar from the saddle rack and strode purposefully towards Apollonius’s stall.
The horse’s ears flew back and lay flat along his head. He snorted and then inhaled deeply. He always reckoned you could tell a lot about humans just by sniffing them. Mamzelle’s pepper and dandelions were his favourites, of course. Her sire smelt like oak trees. He was a boss stallion for sure but kind with it. The other man’s breath smelt of rotting onions and dung heaps. Apollonius had grazed near cow pats that smelt better. He was starting to lose his calm, bucking his head up and down. As Dung-breath approached Apollonius felt a growing urge to kick something.
“Come away from that horse,” said Daddy, “he looks very nervous.”
“No!” she cried, spotting the pair of sheep shears Dung-breath was holding in his hands. “I won’t let you!”
As the men drew close she quickly unlatched the stall door and slipped inside.
“Keep away from him,” he said quietly, “whatever you do don’t walk behind him.”
“I wouldn’t let no daughter of mine talk to me like that,” said Dung-breath, “I’d put her over my knee and…”
“Thank you Gabriel,” Daddy interrupted, “I’ll handle this alone now if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish, gaffer,” replied Dung-breath, “but you’ll never chop the tail off that beast’s backside by yourself.”
“Thank you Gabriel.”
“It would only take a second if you made her give me back my docker.”
Apollonius whinnied again and stamped his feet. Panic was overcoming him, he felt the urge to bolt.
“That will be all Gabriel,” said Daddy as he quickly grabbed Apollonius by the mane.
The man spat and touched his cap. After he went out, Mamzelle could hear him grumbling to someone outside the stable.
Apollonius jerked his head away. Even before they are yearlings, Percherons are big and strong and there is no way a man can hold them if they don’t want to be. Taking a few steps back, Apollonius suddenly shifted his weight to his front legs and kicked out with both back legs, thumping his hooves against the back of his stall. The walls rattled as the sound echoed around the building.
It was all Mamzelle could do to stop herself screaming, for the kick had taken her entirely by surprise. She squashed herself into a corner, banging her head on a water bucket that hung from a hook.
She didn’t know whether to be angry with the horse or afraid. Apollonius was circling the small space in his stall and Mamzelle had to press herself hard against the wall to avoid being hit by his shoulder or rump.
“I’m coming in,” said Daddy, “don’t move!”
You could see the whites of Apollonius’s eyes as he rolled them wildly and he bared his teeth. He eyed the door of the stall, willing it to open so he could run the human down.
Mamzelle came to her senses.
“No Daddy, don’t!” she said, “he’s going to run for it!”
But Daddy took no notice.
There are times when a man can summon superhuman strength far beyond his usual muscle power. Daddy had the door open and closed behind him in a flash but as soon as Apollonius spied a chink of light in the doorway he launched himself forward, slamming his chest into Daddy and pinning him back against the door.
Wincing in pain, Daddy clenched his hands together and somehow managed to turn sideways. Then he jabbed an elbow sharply into the horse’s shoulder at the point where it joins the neck. The horse yielded a few inches and then received another blow on his chest.
Apollonius was confused. He had felt like bolting but the smell of oak now filling his nostrils calmed him, he felt secure in its presence. And once again the odour of pepper and dandelions wafted his way. His tail ceased its wild swishing and his ears flicked forward again.
“Are you alright Daddy?”
“I’ll survive, thank you for asking.”
He quickly slid a head-collar over the horse’s head and Mamzelle held on to one of the cheek pieces.
Her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry Daddy.”
“It’s okay,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulder. “Anyway,” he continued, “I’ve changed my mind. He can keep his tail.”
Mamzelle was so pleased she let go of Apollonius and hugged Daddy for all she was worth. Apollonius might have been just a teeny bit jealous because he snorted and gently poked his nose in between the two of them.
“But there is one condition. It will be your job to keep that tail perfectly clean every day. It’ll be harder than you think.”
Mamzelle was ready to accept anything. She was about to say so when she heard a rustling by the stable door and then a reproachful voice.
“She twists you around her little finger like a piece of string.”
Yes, Apollonius certainly did have a long memory. When he looked back on that day when Dung-breath had frightened him he felt silly. Not much bothered him now that he was fully grown. He was mostly placid and always well-mannered with the humans. Things were better now that he knew his place in the hierarchy although he did have a tendency to throw his weight around with other horses and he took special delight in swishing his tail into Dung-breath’s face whenever the chance presented itself. It was most fun when Mamzelle was around because every time she set eyes on Dung-breath she would scowl and if Apollonius happened to get his aim right she would collapse in a fit of giggles.
“You mark my words,” Dung-breath said one day, his black eyes full of venom, “that horse spells trouble.”
Mamzelle screwed her face up. What a loathsome man! She couldn’t understand why Daddy kept him around.
Dung-breath pointed at Apollonius.
“In my day, working horses like him had their tails docked, and little misses like you,” he said, now jabbing his finger into Mamzelle’s face, “were seen and not heard.”
There were days when Mamzelle almost wished Apollonius had no tail as well. Daddy was right; it was no easy task keeping it clean!
Apollonius couldn’t work out why she was so obsessed with what went on at his rear end.
“You’re all filthy again!” she scolded him. “Why don’t you lift your tail when you feel like going?”
She was standing beside his rump and not behind it, as she’d always been told to do, not that Apollonius would ever kick her. Mind you, he was not averse to leaning on her a little bit for the fun of it.
“Ouch, stop it!” she exclaimed, screwing up her face, “you’re hurting me you great brute!”
Apollonius the Percheron lowered his giant and gentle head towards her, a twinkle in his eye. “She growing up,” he thought, swishing his long feathery tail so that it brushed against her screwed up features. He loved it when she made that face.
Mamzelle pummelled his belly with her fists until he deigned to move.
Pepper and dandelions. Apollonius curled his upper lips back in what Mamzelle knew was called the flehman response. But she knew what he was up to. He was laughing at her.
And so Apollonius and Mamzelle grew up together, their bond of trust strengthening with each passing year. Now he was fully 18 hands high.
“Aye, a fine specimen, I’ll give you that,” said Gabriel one day, “but that tail of his ought to come off.”
He was painting a cabriolet that Daddy had picked up cheap at market. It was battered and broken when they brought it back to the farm. Spokes were missing from its wheels and the paint had long since peeled away from its sides. Inside it smelt of rot and rat droppings. They had restored it bit by bit and all it needed now was a coat of bright paint.
“Why do you always have to be so mean?” asked Mamzelle.
Gabriel looked at her long and hard then turned his back on her.
Apollonius was used to being ridden now and they’d also put him to work on the farm, which was in a hilly region. It was just an excuse really, Daddy said it reminded him of his grandfather and then fell silent. Afterwards he went and sat with Gabriel for a while and Mamzelle saw they both had faraway looks on their face.
It took a long while to finish the cabriolet because they had to send away to Paris to get the fabric for the hood but once it was done it looked a treat.
“It don’t belong here in the country,” muttered Gabriel as he and Daddy sat admiring their handiwork, “next thing we know we’ll have snooty ladies with fancy hair-dos and nothing to do.”
“Well you’re right about the ladies Gabriel,” Daddy said, “but these ones have plenty to do and they’re not snooty.”
Mamzelle didn’t realise what he meant at first; she was sure he’d done up the carriage in order to sell it.
He was such a lovely person, Daddy – strong, kind and generous.
“A Percheron of a man,” she thought.
Gabriel spat and said, “you’re asking for trouble, you are.”
“Dung-breath!” Mamzelle muttered under her breath so no one could hear.
“I don’t believe it, you are giving it to her?” said her mummy incredulously. “Honestly, she only has to click her fingers…”
“It’s for you too, darling,” said Daddy sheepishly.
Mamzelle was too old for this but she got a sudden urge to sit on his lap, to be close to him like when she was a little girl. She hooked one of his arms over her shoulder and snuggled into the warmth. She took his hands in hers and saw that they were thick with bruises and covered in paint. His fingernails were dirty and there was an ugly cut on one of his stubby thumbs. Mamzelle kissed his palms one by one, knowing that whatever became of her in her future life, even if she turned into one of those snooty ladies, she would never find a man with such beautiful hands.
Apollonius the Percheron pulled the cabriolet with aplomb. He had a dainty way of picking up his feet that contrasted with his bulk. With his neck held high and the wind rippling through his mane you could tell he was enjoying himself.
Mamzelle rode on his back too, despite people’s anxiety. She used a foot-stool to mount and once they were outside in the open air she felt on top of the world. She’d only fallen off once but fortunately it was on grass and she came to no harm. She had to walk Apollonius back home that day because she couldn’t get back on.
As time went by she rode him further and further away the farm. They had found a spot in the woods about a mile away which soon became their favourite. To get to it you had to turn off the village road by an old juniper tree, the “poor man’s pepper” as it is sometimes called in French. Nobody ever went there but them. Through the woods ran a bubbly stream which hurried down from the high hills that could be seen in the distance. They would stop here a while for Apollonius to drink.
Back in his stall there was still the problem of keeping his tail clean. Mamzelle would work for ages with comb and shampoo and then he would go and soil it again. She got so annoyed one day that she just splooshed a whole bucket of water over his bottom. Apollonius looked round in surprise.
“You’re all dirty again!” she cried.
“I told you to get that tail docked,” said Gabriel, who happened to be passing. “We could still do it…”
Mamzelle glared at him.
Apollonius tried to look at his bottom to see what all the fuss was about. Although he’d seen plenty of bottoms before on other horses, his neck wasn’t long enough to look at his own.
“I wonder if Mamzelle can see hers,” he mused, shaking his head in amusement.
“What so funny?” Mamzelle asked him.
He was glad she couldn’t read his thoughts! Then he curled his lip back and whinnied, his eyes sparkling. He’d just had another thought.
“What is it?” asked Mamzelle.
He was imagining Dung-breath with his head between his legs examining his own bottom. No wonder his breath smelt so bad!
There was no good reason for keeping draught horses on the farm. Mamzelle thought Daddy just loved having them around; they certainly made a change from cows. Every first of November her parents would get out an album of old photos and show her what their village looked like in the olden days.
There were lots of pictures of old uncles and aunts and of children dressed up in funny clothes. Some of the faces looked vaguely familiar but Mamzelle didn’t pay them much attention. Her favourite photo was one of a pair of Percherons standing by the old well she knew so well, all harnessed up and ready for a day’s labour in the fields. She pretended not to notice that their tails had been docked.
Mamzelle supposed her life was a lot easier than that of the children in the photos. The same went for Apollonius although she was sure the old horses would have been pleased to see how proud and regal their descendant had become, trotting effortlessly ahead of the cabriolet with his little mistress at the reins.
Then one day something awful thing happened.
The plan was for Mamzelle and her mummy to dress up in old-fashioned clothes and ride the cabriolet to the village fair the next spring. They practiced every Sunday for months and eventually Mamzelle mastered everything the grown-ups had taught her. Daddy looked on with a soppy grin on his face as she performed turns in the yard and even her mummy had to admit she was proud of her daughter.
It was fun dressing up in those long dresses and little hats although the fabric got in the way when they mounted the cabriolet. And Apollonius, resplendent with a length of red braid plaited into his mane by Mummy (you had to admit she was brilliant at doing stuff like that), strutted his stuff, his coat glistening in the sun. No powdered Parisian ladies of old trotting snootily down the Champs-Élysées on their way to the Paris Opera ever looked finer.
Then came the day of the final dress rehearsal. Everyone on the farm was busy with preparations for the next day, even Gabriel was hard at work sprucing up a tractor.
Mummy drove the cabriolet into the village and handed the reins to her daughter for the return trip. It was not on the road that the awful thing happened. No, all was well there even when Apollonius almost broke into a gallop. However, as they drove into the farmyard Mamzelle decided to do a few rounds to impress the men. Gabriel had his head in a tractor engine and took no notice of them but Daddy stopped what he was doing.
“Bravo!” he cheered and clapped his hands enthusiastically.
Mamzelle was pulling back on the reins to bring Apollonius to a halt when BANG! The tractor backfired right in his face. Apollonius had never shied in harness but this was too much for him. He reared up and pawed the air. Even then Mamzelle might have brought him under control but when he saw Gabriel’s blackened face it spooked him entirely and he bolted.
Mamzelle and her mummy were thrown back in their seats and the reins flew through Mamzelle’s hands. By the time she retrieved them Apollonius was at full tilt and about to career out of the farmyard. Mamzelle fought to pull back on the reins but it was no use. Mummy grabbed the reins too but between them they only succeeded in pulling Apollonius’s head to one side. This mightn’t have been such a bad idea because it forced him slow down but the cabriolet was so light it took off as soon as it hit a rut. Then it skewed sideways and overturned, throwing its occupants clear like rag dolls skimming across a frozen pond.
Gabriel was the first to reach Mamzelle. He made her sit up but she screwed her face up in agony. She was full of grazes and bruises and her dress was in a pitiful state. Worse still, she couldn’t move one of her arms and there was a stabbing pain in her shoulder.
“Don’t touch me Dung-breath, I hate you!” she hissed, “you did this on purpose!”
Out of the corner of her eye Mamzelle saw Daddy cradling her mummy’s head in his arms. She was out cold.
“Why did he go to her first?” Mamzelle thought and then burst into tears.
The shafts of the overturned cabriolet dug into Apollonius’s body as he galloped. There were terrible scraping and snapping noises behind him which he couldn’t get away from no matter how fast he ran. As he rounded a bend in the road the load flew out to one side, bumped up the verge and for a moment flew silently through the air like a balloon. Then it smashed into the juniper tree and shattered into a thousand pieces.
Although she felt very groggy, Mamzelle glared at Daddy when he came into her bedroom. If her shoulder hadn’t hurt so much she would have turned over and faced the wall.
“You’re a lucky girl,” he murmured, “the doctor says it’s only a broken collarbone and a few bruises.”
“Luck?” Mamzelle said to herself in a daze, “so that’s what it is.”
“Why do you employ that vile man?” she said aloud in a voice which seemed to come from far away.
“And why,” she thought, “didn’t you come see how I was first?”
If she had been fully awake she would have seen a pained expression on Daddy’s face, as if he were carrying a hundred years of woe on his shoulders.
Only once the doctor had gone did anyone think about the horse.
Mummy had come round and was up and about after disregarding the doctor’s orders to stay in bed for 24 hours.
“It’s all very well for him to say that, you can tell how much he knows about working on a farm,” she fumed as she clattered cooking pots on the stove, “never has to get his hands dirty.”
She looked angry but really she was worried. It was going to take Mamzelle weeks to get over her broken collar bone, which meant she couldn’t be with Apollonius…
“The horse!” she cried, “where is he? I hope he’s not done any damage, that’s all we need right now.”
Apollonius was dying. The crash with the juniper tree had bowled him over. He lay stranded for a while on his side, with froth pouring from his mouth and blood streaming from wounds on his shoulder and the base of his tail. It took all his remaining strength to get to his feet.
He couldn’t see much, only a kind of silver light, but he found he could walk now that he was free of all but the few remaining splinters of the cabriolet embedded in his rump. Instinct carried him into the woods and towards the distant sound of water.
When his legs finally gave out he sunk to his knees and slumped on his side. He arched his neck upwards once then lowered his head slowly to the ground before him, breathed a sigh and closed his eyes.
“We found the cart,” said Daddy, “or what’s left of it.”
His wife laid her hand gently on his shoulder.
“And the horse?”
He looked drawn and beaten.
“Gabriel is still out searching. You know what it means to him.”
Swarms of flies fussed over Apollonius. They all took off in a crowd when the horse’s skin flinched and then settled again in unison. Black crows quarrelled over who should be first to peck at the congealed blood clinging to his wounds.
The day after the accident Mamzelle came gingerly down for breakfast looking very sorry for herself.
“How are you feeling?” asked her mummy tenderly. She didn’t look too good herself.
“What about Apollonius?”
“Ask your father,” said Mummy.
Mamzelle immediately knew something was wrong when Daddy looked away.
“Gabriel’s out looking for him,” he said quietly.
“What? Why him? This is all his fault, I hate that smelly old man and so does Apollonius!”
Just then there was a tap at the door. It was Gabriel, looking cold and miserable.
“No sign of him,” he said.
“Come in and get warm,” said Mummy.
Mamzelle tried to turn her back but a stabbing pain in her shoulder reminded her not to make sudden movements.
Gabriel said he had searched all around the wreckage of the cabriolet. Depending on its injuries, the horse could be miles away by now.
Mamzelle’s eyes widened with fright as she looked from one adult to another.
“What wreckage, what’s he talking about?”
“Smashed into a tree, young miss.”
Mamzelle clapped her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp.
“What tree? Where?”
“Wait! I know where he is! Quick Daddy, let’s go… ouch!”
Mamzelle cursed her wretched collarbone.
Apollonius was floating in silent meadows, where silver grass stretched as far as the eye could see. He felt no pain, all was calm and empty. His life was ebbing away like a patch of damp soaking into the desert sand. The air smelt of gossamer and icicles.
He looked dead when they found him. The vet shook his head apologetically. Daddy looked aghast and Gabriel looked as if he was seeing ghosts.
They had followed Mamzelle’s instructions on how to get to the stream. She knew the horse better than they did. They had gone on ahead because she couldn’t move very fast with her arm in a sling and every step hurt. With the help of her mother she eventually managed to catch up with the men.
“Oh no!” she yelled, “get away from him Gabriel, you butcher!”
Gabriel looked all funny. A tear welled in one eye and overflowed. It trickled down his cheek, negotiating its way across the wrinkles and making a white channel in the dirt on his face.
Mamzelle knelt by the big horse’s head. With her good hand she shooed away the flies.
Gossamer and icicles … and something else. A faint smell he had known in a previous life maybe. Pepper, yes pepper, that’s what it was. And dandelions. Black and yellow, not white and silver. Colour! And then from afar he heard a familiar little voice calling his name.
“Apollonius! Wake up, wake up. Apollonius please, I love you!”
“Come away now,” Daddy said in a soothing voice, “there’s nothing more we can do.”
Even if they could have saved the horse it would have cost a fortune in vet’s bills, not to mention the problem of lifting and transporting him. Gabriel was right; it had all been a bad idea. The carthorse, the cabriolet, the stabling costs and now this; it was heart-breaking.
All this went through Daddy’s mind as he stood watching his daughter’s tears dripping onto the horse’s nostrils.
Then something caught his eye. The vet was examining the horse’s wounds, feeling for broken bones. As he worked on the tail, yes, there it was again! Mamzelle was resting her slinged arm on the horse’s head and its ear had definitely twitched, he was sure of it!
Well, it did cost a fortune in vet’s bills and they had to force a tractor through the woods in order to get to him, but they managed to get a sling under Apollonius to lift him to his feet so that the vet could perform his horse miracles with an array of splints and ointments and syringes. It was lucky they had water nearby because Apollonius was severely dehydrated by the time he was found.
Later, Daddy said they’d decided to stable Apollonius on a friend’s farm for a while.
“But why, I want to look after him,” protested Mamzelle.
“To save money. It’s much closer to the vets,” Daddy said rather unconvincingly. She was sure he was hiding something from her. She had seen him go into a huddle with the vet once they’d got Apollonius into the vet’s horse box parked by the juniper tree.
“I’m not afraid of blood,’ she said defiantly, “I can learn how to dress his wounds and give him injections and things, that will save lots of money. Please Daddy!”
“You’re hurt yourself don’t forget, you couldn’t take care of him with one arm”.
“Don’t remind me,” thought Mamzelle. Her shoulder was really painful now.
“He’ll come home when you’re both better. In a month’s time…”
She noticed that he didn’t look her in the eye when he spoke. She was sensitive to such things; he was definitely holding something back, she was sure of it now.
Four weeks! It was an awfully long time. Mamzelle pestered her parents every day for news of Apollonius. When there were still three weeks to go she counted out 21 times 3 of her favourite sweets, which were chewy milk bottles. She set them aside and polished off the rest of the packet to get them out of the way. Each day she ate three milk bottles.
One day they took her to see him. She still had 30 milk bottles left.
“Hmm,” thought Apollonius, “pepper and dandelions,” and tried to swish his tail.
Mamzelle was under strict orders not to go in the box with him and she was only allowed to stay for five minutes. Again she got the distinct feeling they were hiding something from her. But patting his head and kissing his nose was much better than nothing and while no-one was looking she slipped him a milk bottle as a treat.
The time dragged on. Mamzelle was getting sick and tired of milk bottles. The pile was not going down very quickly. She kept wondering what it was they were hiding. Was Apollonius lame or ill?
Another thing she couldn’t fathom was Gabriel. Who was he exactly? He looked old enough to be her grandfather so why was he so beastly? It was a mystery. And why had he cried? It was icky and didn’t make sense. She despised him even more now she had seen him all tearful.
“I don’t understand why he has to be here,” she said over breakfast one morning, “he’s evil”.
“Don’t keep saying things like that,” replied her mummy.
Later Mamzelle overheard her parents talking while they were getting the milk churns ready to put outside for collection.
“We’ll have to tell her sooner or later,” Daddy said.
When she was least expecting it Apollonius was back. She still had some milk bottles left so when she wandered into the stables to do some mucking out she walked straight past his stall without a thought.
“Pepper and dandelions!” thought Apollonius, nickering to draw her attention. “Or is it whickering? Either way I’d better neigh because she hasn’t noticed me.” Which is precisely what he did, just as loud as he could!
Mamzelle squealed when she heard him. “Apollonius!”
She hugged him, she kissed him, she stroked him and she fed him all the milk bottles she had in her pockets.
“I’m so pleased to see you!” she whispered while trying to dodge his slobbery tongue.
She quickly unlatched the stall door and slipped inside. She was a bit taken aback by the state of his front legs. Moving along one flank she gasped when she caught sight of several long patches of bare flesh.
“Oh, you poor boy!”
She ran her fingers softly along his belly, feeling the welts and imagining the pain he must have been in after the accident. Her broken collar bone was bad enough but it was nothing compared to poor Apollonius… and then she shrieked.
“Where’s your tail?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing,” thought Apollonius.
Never again would he be able to swat flies and play tricks on Dung-breath with his swishing tail; in its place there was just a bandaged stump.
“That wicked, evil Gabriel, he waited until you were injured and then he chopped it off!”
Mamzelle was livid. She was determined to find Gabriel and have it out with him.
“And where are you off to, may I ask? You look like a wasp with toothache.”
Mamzelle was in no mood for her daddy’s funny phrases.
“Where is he?”
“Where’s who, sweetheart?”
“You should have told me!”
Mamzelle’s eyes narrowed. She had spotted Dung-breath behind her father, standing over by the well. Suddenly it felt as if a whole swarm of wasps was fighting to get out from inside her. She took one step back and then launched herself forward. In no time at all she sped across the yard and threw herself on Gabriel.
The man didn’t defend himself, he just put his hands over his ears and cowered down.
“Stop it this minute!”
Mamzelle had hardly ever heard Daddy use his big voice, he was usually so calm and collected. He attempted to pull her off but if you’ve ever tried to poke a pill down a cat’s throat after you think you’ve got it safely wrapped up in a towel then you’ll know exactly how hard it was to master Mamzelle. In the end he picked her up by the midriff and held her in mid-air, still kicking and punching.
By now he was really angry. For a moment she thought he was going to hit her; bend her over his knee and spank her as Gabriel had once advised him to do. Instead he did the most amazing thing.
He plonked her back down on her feet and spun her round to face him. She was expecting a lecture at the very least, a tirade of words, but all he did was grin and make funny faces! He crouched down and let his arms dangle by his side and then he jumped up and down like a chimpanzee.
Mamzelle felt all her anger drain away and before long she was throwing her arms around his neck and clinging to him. And then the tears came.
“Come with me,” he said quietly, “let’s go and get the photo album, I want to show you something.”
“Do you recognise who that is?”
“It wasn’t Gabriel who cut off the horse’s tail, you know. It was the vet.”
It didn’t sink in at first. Mamzelle was still concentrating on the picture Daddy had his finger on. The face did look familiar. Then the penny dropped.
“No sweetheart, I just told you it was the vet. He had to do it otherwise the horse would have died.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Daddy related Gabriel’s story. It was ever so sad. By the time he had finished Mamzelle had a great big lump in her throat.
One day Gabriel was out driving a two-horse cart in the lanes about the village. On either side of him sat two excited children, a boy and a girl. Hitched to the cart were two grey Percherons, one a 20-year old mare and the other a young stallion who was still learning the ropes from her. He was eager and strong and, unusually for a Percheron, his feet were feathered and his tail hadn’t been docked.
In those days Gabriel had thick yellow hair like a Viking. He was the handsomest man in the village. “Go faster, Papa,” the little girl begged Gabriel.
There was no traffic about so Gabriel clicked his tongue and the Percherons picked up speed. A flock of sparrows scatted as they approached and a startled blackbird hurried away to hide up a tree, where it sat indignantly peep-peeping and flicking its tail up and down. The children held on tight to the hand rail as the exhilarating ride continued. Everything was flying – the horses’ manes, Gabriel’s hair and the young stallion’s tail. They looked like an April cloud scudding across a windswept sky.
Then disaster struck.
The young stallion was having so much fun that he kicked up his heels in joy. His tail flew up and got tangled in the reins, pulling them tight. He thought this meant he was supposed to pull up so he dug in his heels while the mare continued to run. The cart zigzagged from side to side until it eventually skidded to a halt.
The children were both all dazed. Unfortunately the little girl stood up in her seat just as the mare backed to loosen the bit in her mouth. The jolt on the cart was enough to topple Gabriel’s daughter over the hand rail and into the feet of the massive horses.
“I was that little boy,” said Daddy, “you would have seen us all in the photograph album if you had looked properly.”
“What happened to the little girl?”
“I’m afraid she never woke up again.”
Gabriel’s wife had never forgiven him for the death of their child. Before long she met another man and left with him.
“So now you understand why Gabriel is the way he is. He has nothing much to live for. He has never forgiven himself. When he sees you it reminds him of the little girl he lost.”
Mamzelle felt horrible. She went to Daddy for a big cuddle.
“I promise I’ll never be angry with him again,” she whispered.
“And for Christmas I’ll by him some toothpaste, because his breath smells awful!”
Mamzelle sidled up to Gabriel and stood awkwardly in front of him. She had rehearsed what she was going to say but now she was here she couldn’t remember any of it. She stood with one foot on top of the other and then changed over so that the foot underneath was now on top. No words would come and suddenly she seemed to have too many feet.
“What is it lass?” Gabriel said quietly. He was sitting on the rim of the well, cleaning dried mud from the soles of his boots with a penknife.
“S’pose your father’s been telling you stories.”
No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t spit it out.
In the corner of her eye she caught sight of Daddy going into the cart barn. He stopped and gestured encouragement.
“Go on,” he mouthed silently and closed the door behind him.
Still she stood fidgeting with embarrassment.
Suddenly she stopped trying to find the right words. She took a deep breath and held it (she would have liked to hold her nose, too) and stepped forward and planted a great big kiss on Gabriel’s nose. Before he could react she scampered away to the cart barn. If she had looked back she would have seen Gabriel smile for the very first time in years.
Mamzelle slipped inside the cart barn and hid behind the big tractor. She wanted a moment to herself to think things over before talking to Daddy. “Have I messed everything up?” she wondered.
She had expected Daddy to be alone in the barn but when she heard strange noises coming from over by the tool bench she froze. “I did what I felt,” she told herself, “as if Gabriel was a horse.”
She tiptoed to the back of the tractor and cautiously peeped round its big wheel to see who was making those sounds.
It was her mummy and daddy and they were kissing!
It seemed to go on for ages; Mamzelle wondered how they could hold their breath for so long. It was all a bit yucky really. Then she heard her mummy say “so you agree then?”
“I’m not so sure, after all that has happened,” said Daddy.
“Oh go on. We could get one with four wheels this time.”
“It would probably need two horses.”
“So what? Please darling, it would make me so happy.”
Mamzelle could hardly believe her ears.
“Oh alright then, if you are sure.”
Mamzelle stepped out from behind the tractor wheel and stood facing them with her hands on her hips.
“Honestly Daddy,” she said mockingly, “she can twist you round her little finger like a piece of string!”
So the years went by. One way or another Apollonius had a good life. He spent lots of time pulling a plough with Gabriel guiding. He liked the smell of the turned earth and he got very good at walking in straight lines. They travelled all around the region doing ploughing contests. Often Apollonius came home with a winner’s rosette pinned to his bridle. He liked to show it off to the other animals, especially the mares he knew, and there were plenty of those.
Visits from Mamzelle became fewer as time went by and then one day there were braids in his mane again and a bow tied on the stump of his tail as he drew Mamzelle’s wedding carriage.
When Apollonius was long in the tooth, and the grey hair round his eyes and muzzle made him look very distinguished, a new young stallion called Aristotle joined the stable and gradually took over the drudge. Apollonius didn’t mind, he was content now to work a few hours and then take it easy, so long as his tummy didn’t ache, which often happened now.
One day when he was snoozing in his stall, he was awoken by a tickle on the wrinkles on his nose and he felt tiny arms cuddling his head. He sniffed and wondered.
“Let me see now. Pepper I know, but what is this other fragrance? It’s not dandelions. Oh, I know what it is! It’s buttercups. There’s a new little Mamzelle and I shall call her Peppercups!”
However, Peppercups didn’t stay long with him.
“You’ve got no tail!” she said as if he didn’t know already, and tripped away further down the line of stalls to where Aristotle stood waiting for her.
“Oh do come back,” nickered Apollonius the Percheron who liked to play with words, “allow me to tell you the tale of my tail.”
Well she did come back.
“What happened to it?” she asked.
“Ah now,” thought Apollonius, “thereby hangs a tale…”