“Spill the beans, Lizzie. Which is more hazardous? A horse? Or online dating?”
Judith’s high-pitched question is shouted into the air, but the words are left behind as swiftly as they are thrown. They mingle and swirl with steam, in a vacuum of space through which three horses flash. No answer arrives above the rhythmic pounding of hooves. Each stride is gaining momentum, scattering frost, digging deep into a cushion of turf.
Three women and their equine counterparts are whooping and squealing with delight. They thunder along the track, totally focused, swept up in sensory over-load, borne along within the zig
zag maze that is Thetford Forest. Three pairs of human eyes hawkishly searching in a fleeting instant for any rut or hidden rabbit hole, a pre - destined but much dreaded appointment with terra firma. Three pairs of equine eyes locked onto a beckoning stretch of unfenced heaven. Three sets of quadruped legs stretching, lifting, leaping, landing, joyous and unfettered. Three pairs of female arms, biceps straining, fists taut. Autonomous parts, all streaming as one entity. Occasionally a ruddy cheek is turned hurriedly, an instruction hurled over a shoulder: -
“Steady up, there’s a dip on the left,” or, “Caroline. Shift over, for Christ’s sake. If Tarquin puts in another buck, I’ll hit the deck.”
At the front, Judith drops her eyes to her hands, quickly snatches her reins in a bit shorter. She looks up too late, cannot swerve the low-hanging branch in her path. She frantically calls, “Watch out. Ah, shit,” hears the ragged smack of the birch hitting her hat, finishes the sentence, “that was close.”
Laughing, she brings her body upright again, turns to check her friends are still on board. Lizzie and Caroline are both crouched in a classic racing position, feet wedged firmly into stirrups, bottoms raised above the seat of their saddles, elbows bent, maintaining the balance between holding half a ton of wilful flesh and muscle and the far lesser strength of female frames. Judith feels the ache in her knuckles, the burn in her wrists, knows she has limits. She finds her own voice annoyingly plaintive when she speaks.
“I’m slowing down girls. Need a breather.”
As they settle into a walk, Judith flips a stray lock of grey mane hairs across Rommel’s neck. She stares at the spaces around her in the forest, untarnished, the trappings of civilised living expelled. She savours the fluidity of it all, the season-changing shades of green and brown. The stillness of the trees, the criss-cross of an occasional track, brimming with potential, tantalising in its promise of yet more avenues which may lie, just out of sight. When they reach the next junction in the lines of trees, Judith stops Rommel, holds her hand up to halt the other two women. Her head is tilted. Every now and then, the breeze brings the fleeting whine of engines.
She asks, “Can I hear motorbikes?”
A throaty drone plays in and out for thirty seconds, no more, before the density of the trees swallows up the sound again. The quickening of her heart is exactly that. Not a bile-inducing bang, bang, bang of abject fear, simply a vague but irritating, pattering. A team of mice scuttling up the stairs inside her chest. Tarquin fidgets sideways making Lizzie chirp up impatiently.
“Stop fretting, Jude. We’ll be fine, they’re no-where near close to us.”
Judith opens her mouth to speak, but Lizzie’s sceptical expression squashes her hesitancy. She sees the sudden flash of Tarquin’s bay leg kicking out behind him, knows it mimics the impatience of his rider. Judith concedes.
“OK, OK. Come on. Let’s open '-em up a bit. Who’s gonna get mud in her face? We can pull up at the top of the slope.”
Caroline’s kick-start is sharper than Judith’s. From a standstill, her horse, Flint, has already lurched two strides into a canter before Judith and Lizzie get a chance to point their mounts in the same direction. Judith waves a friendly fist at Caroline’s back, calls out.
“You cheated. False start,” but she’s grinning as small clods of loose grass and soil fly up in Flint’s wake.
Running parallel only 400 metres to their right, another forest track is taking the imprint of speed. Their tyres gripping into the sandy soil beneath the patchy turf, four off-road motorbikes growl up the incline. Regimentally spaced eight metres apart, equidistant to perfection. Visors dropped, the four men are in the zone. They left early in the certainty that the forest would be theirs and theirs alone. They squeeze up the throttles to 45mph. Looking ahead to the brow of the hill, the lead biker sees an outer perimeter fence running along the horizon. Carefully, he releases his left hand from the handle
bars, quietly praying he doesn’t hit a rut, and points his whole arm out to the left. The four bikers slow only fractionally, torsos stiffen in anticipation of the sharp turn, clutches grind, booted feet are lifted from the pedals to stretch straight forward, soles skirting the grass briefly. -
Now travelling at a right angle to their original course, the lead biker is upright again and momentarily dares to turn his neck and check that his mates are all following. He knows this area well;
his favourite hook right is coming up fast and he’s itching to put Jerry in his place. The wind whips away his words: ,
“Let’s test your metal, Jerry. Bloody ex-officer. It’s time for you to eat some dirt.”
Luc starts counting down the metres in his head in anticipation of reaching the intersection of tracks. Now twenty metres away, he cuts off the throttle, stands high on the pedals, braces his arms, grips his fists ready to take the full weight of the bike. The bright morning sun reflects briefly off his visor.
“Fuck it, I can’t see.”
Judith registers the air rushing past her face;
it mixes with the echo beat of the hooves. The trees conspire to hog the sound and create a cabin effect - muffled as if she is cruising in an aeroplane. Caroline is still in front; she twists around while in full flight. Judith can barely make out her words. ,
“I can hear motorbikes.”
Replying, Judith gasps, “Where? I can’t see any?”
Ahead of them by a mere six metres, the first bike roars into their path, cutting straight across from the avenue to their right.
Caroline screams, “Nooooooooo,” as she flings her shoulders back, her feet forward, her arms rigid, frantically attempting to stop Flint in his tracks. Judith sees the biker’s head lift as his focus is suddenly wrenched from peering at the handlebars. He’s caught sight of a chestnut mound of horseflesh on a collision course with his own fragile human body parts and his survival reaction hurls him sideways at the ground on the corner.
The air that shoots, fast and furious, into Judith’s lungs comes with a split-second panic – there isn’t enough space to stop, it’s far too late! Flint is a big horse and Caroline a seriously quick-witted, sharp individual. Her brain processes, her body reacts, her hands lift, taking the reins and the spontaneous instincts of her steed with her. Flint’s hocks gather under him, the motorbike is sliding crossways before him. His head and neck follow the urgent upward motion of Caroline’s hands and he rises high above the threat below him. The biker squints in disbelief – a hairy underbelly, iron-clad hooves and sand all flying over him in a nightmare of meat and mass. No single anatomical part of Flint actually touches the throbbing monster beneath, save a green dollop of descending dung. It splatters swiftly through the gap between polycotton and helmet, into the gulley beneath the biker’s chin.
Judith grasps feverishly at the two or three extra seconds she has to realise what’s happening. Another motorbike dramatically hurls into the scene. She cannot quiet the roar between her ears, the certainty - this is it. He’ll smash into Rommel’s legs. She yells.
“Lizzie, watch out…”