I sit here watching the sun drift lower in the sky, sometimes hidden behind the trees. It is now mid Winter: there are no leaves on the branches and the ground looks damp. I’m glad there’s a thick pane of glass between me and the scene beyond. I’ve spent many a late afternoon sitting here over the past few years, my chair turned to catch the last of the rays as a blanket lays over my legs to keep them warm.
“Are you still ok sitting there Robert?” the afternoon nurse asks kindly.
“Yes, I’m fine thanks love”.
“That’s good, supper won’t be too much longer, I think you’ll enjoy it tonight – it’s a lamb roast”.
They do their best to make the meals interesting, but to be honest, I only eat them because I have to, not because I enjoy them. I know cooking for a lot of people can be difficult, and if the truth be told, not many of the other residents really know what they’re eating anyway, so I don’t complain. There are others a lot worse off than I am.
Meadow Vale has been my home for the past six years, since my beloved Millie left me for a world without pain. I know she’ll be waiting for me when my time comes and we’ll be re-united, young and healthy again. Until then, I’ll make the most of the time I have left, enjoy the changing of the seasons from my window – my window to the past and my view to the future.
Twenty five years ago, there was an accident at work that left me in a wheelchair. I received a small payout from the company, and did many months of rehabilitation, eventually coming to terms with my situation.
I would never walk again, and Millie would be my guardian angel, my saviour. She cared for me, bathed me, changed my dressings, pushed my wheel chair. We hadn’t had children, so we were each other’s lives. I was so grateful for what she did for me and she never complained. I felt I had let her down as a husband and a provider, but she always said as long as we were together, nothing else mattered. It had always been like that with Mil and me.
We’d grown up in a rough suburban area on the East coast of the North Island of New Zealand. We went to the same school but didn’t know each other until that special Summer.
Although my mum and dad were dirt poor, they owned an old shack on the beach with a bit of scrubby land around it. It had been passed down through the family and from the age of about fourteen I spent my school holidays there; usually on my own, fending for myself and getting by on my wits.
The sun is now fading through my window and I can feel the chill of the evening approaching. But thinking back to that Summer warms my heart; the blue skies, the warmth of the sea, Mr B and Millie. I can remember it as though it was yesterday.
I’d not long dragged my tinny up the beach after my morning’s fishing trip when a scruffy looking horse ambled by. Well, well, I said out loud. You don’t often see that around here – a horse walking along the beach on its own! I knew there were some riding stables a few miles further South but the trail rides didn’t make it this far as there was a treacherous rocky bluff they’d have to traverse, so they usually took the other direction.
I watched this horse for a while – he wandered aimlessly, picking at bits of stringy grass growing at the edge of the sand. He clearly wasn’t from around here but he didn’t seem to be afraid either. He moseyed down towards the water and didn’t shy away when the waves came closer, washing over his unshodden hooves. To my amazement, he actually buckled down in the sand and had a roll, this way and that, staggered to his feet and gave himself a nose to tail body shake. I laughed out loud, and for the first time, he noticed me. He didn’t startle – he just looked at me with big brown eyes and for a moment I saw in him what he may have seen in me – a chap who could look after himself.
I walked up the short track from the beach to my shack and found a couple of pieces of stale bread in the larder. On returning to the beach, I expected the horse to be gone, but he was there, just relaxing, one hind leg slightly bent, resting his hind quarters. I approached him slowly with my palm held flat in front of me with the bread torn into bite-size pieces. To my amazement, he stood up straight and took some steps towards me. It was me who stopped, suddenly wondering whether this was a good idea or not. After all, I didn’t really know much about horses and I certainly knew nothing about this one.
He continued to come forward, and holding my breath in case I frightened him, I reached out my hand and he gently took the bread from me. Wow, I slowly let out the air I was holding in, and felt a strange sense of wonder. Why would this horse want to come to me? I was a bit of a loner really, didn’t need many friends, but this scruffy brown horse seemed to be comfortable in my presence. I told myself he’d go now he’d had the bread, so I wouldn’t be disappointed. But when I turned to go back to the shack, he followed me. If I stopped, he stopped. When I walked, he followed. I went inside and wondered what he’d do. He followed me with his gaze, then took refuge under the only large tree on the beach front, a fir tree. I watched for a while longer until he fell asleep on his feet.
I can hear the clatter of pots and pans coming from the kitchen, signalling dinner is not far off, but they’ll come and get me when they’re ready. They like to feed the ones who need help first, so I know I’ve still got a little time left to reminisce about that Summer.
The next morning I awoke early, eager to see if my new companion had left for more salubrious surroundings. Nope, there he was, still resting under the tree. Well I’ll be! I forewent my breakfast that morning so I could use the last of the bread to feed the horse under the tree. I quietly approached him, speaking gently to let him know I was not going to hurt him. He snickered under his breath and came forward, again taking the bread from my palm. I felt a little bolder and I reached out to stroke his velvet muzzle. He didn’t shy away, so I moved a bit closer and stroked his neck. I could see his coat was thick and dirty and he had scars and scabs on his legs. His mane was knotted but his eyes were kind. “Hello boy” I said gently. “Where have you come from?” I asked wonderingly. I spent another twenty minutes or so with the horse and then looked out to sea and realised if I didn’t get out there in my tinny soon, the tide would have turned and with it all the fish I hoped to catch for my lunch. “Bye fella, I’ve gotta go” I said reluctantly and returned to my shack.
My fishing trip was relatively successful, enough for a couple of meals, anyway. As I didn’t have a refrigerator, I had to catch my food fresh each day. On my return up the beach, I saw a sight that unexpectedly warmed my heart. The scruffy brown horse was waiting for me at my shack, his nose practically in the front door!
The next couple of days passed in the same way – fishing, cooking, talking to the horse. When it became obvious that this fella wasn’t going anywhere, I got a bit bold. I fashioned a headstall from some old fishing ropes that were lying about the shack. I’d been on a horse a couple of times when I was younger, but figured the saying “it’s like falling off a bicycle” would probably apply to horses too. How hard could it be? So with little effort, I popped the headstall on and swung myself onto his bare back. So far so good – he didn’t bolt, he didn’t do anything! So with a gentle kick to the sides, I encouraged him towards the beach. To my relief, he did exactly as I asked him, carefully and quietly. We strolled along the flat beach for a while and being sixteen, I was a bit full of confidence so I gamely kicked him into a trot. Off he went again, trotting at a steady pace and not seeming to mind me bouncing around wildly on top! I hadn’t realised riding bareback would be so difficult, but I eventually got the rhythm and we enjoyed a nice jog along the sand. He seemed happy; his ears were pricked forward and he picked his feet up, almost daintily, so as not to trip over any branches washed up by the tide.
We did this each day, with me getting a little bolder each time, until before long, we were cantering through the waves! This was the best Summer holiday I’d ever had.
“Ok Robert, time for your dinner now, sorry about the wait” the nurse says as she wheels me towards the dining room.
“That’s fine love, I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, and it’s given me time to think about when I was a boy and these old legs took me on all sorts of adventures!” I say with a gleam in my eye.
“Oh, ey, I bet you were a one in your day” she says affectionately as she places the plate of vegetables and lamb smothered in gravy on the table in front of me.
I eat the dinner without fuss or fanfare and excuse myself when I’ve finished. The nurses are understaffed so I try to do as much for myself as I can so they can help the poor dears who don’t know what day it is, and often, who they are. I put my glass of red wine onto the tray fixed to my wheelchair and wheel myself back to my window. We always eat dinner early at Meadow Vale so it is still only just after 5pm and the sun is just setting behind the trees. I sip my wine and before long, am sixteen again and back on the beach with my horse.
“Hey, Boy, want to go for a ride?”
I hadn’t named the horse but didn’t feel a need to. He responded to me whatever I called him, and I thought “Hey Boy” would do fine. He seemed to like his outings as much as I did, and I was getting better at staying on. I had a couple of falls, but the soft sand didn’t hurt and he just waited patiently until I swung myself onto his bare back. We didn’t often see anyone else on the beach and that suited us plenty.
One Saturday, more than a week since we’d become friends, we rode a little further up the beach than usual. As it was the weekend, there were a few more people around but we took no notice.
A couple of girls were splashing about in the waves when we passed, and one of them called out “Hey there, what’s your horse’s name?”
“He doesn’t have one” I said sheepishly and continued on.
“Everyone needs a name” I heard the pretty blonde girl say, her words barely audible as they were whisked away on the breeze.
I rode home and gave the horse some fresh water. He nibbled on the grasses around the shack but didn’t venture far. As I sat by my campfire that night, I kept seeing the pretty blonde girl’s face, her curls clinging to her cheeks, stuck there by the salt water. And I could hear her words “Everyone needs a name”.
After my fishing trip the next morning, the horse and I rode up the beach and before I knew it we’d ridden to where we’d seen the girls the day before. And to my delight and slight embarrassment, they were there again. “Hi again” said the other girl cheekily. “Hiya” I replied, never one to waste words.
“Have you thought of a name yet?” asked the pretty blonde girl. I could see that she was not just pretty, but petite and a little shy.
“No, I’m not good with that sort of thing”
“Maybe if we get to know him better, we can help you come up with a name” said the other girl. Was she flirting with me, I wondered?
“Ok, do you want to walk along with us for a while?” I ventured, being sure they’d so no.
“We’d love to, wouldn’t we Millie?”
“Ok, but only for a short way” said the pretty girl. Her name is Millie. I like that.
We walked along in silence, the scruffy brown horse keeping step with the girls and me feeling goofy sitting on top, looking down at them, not quite knowing where to avert my eyes.
“We’d better go back now” said Millie after a short while “I think your parents will have lunch almost ready” she said as she turned to her friend. Then she looked up at me and I saw that her eyes were brown and kind and something strange stirred within me.
“Ok, see you tomorrow then?” questioned the other girl. I still didn’t know her name, but wasn’t overly concerned. I knew Millie’s name and I realised that was important to me.
“Ok, why not!” and I kicked the horse into a canter and rode home. Was I showing off to the girls? Or was I just happy that I knew Millie’s name?
The next few days passed in the same way – me riding along the beach on the scruffy brown horse and feigning surprise when I saw the girls on the beach. We walked along, mainly in silence, with the occasional observation about something or someone we’d seen along the way.
Eventually, Millie’s friend, Charlotte lost interest in our walks along the beach. There were some older boys playing touch rugby and she chose to sit and watch them while Millie and I and the brown horse walked along, getting to know each other.
“How long have you owned him?” she asked
“Well, it’s kind of strange… I don’t own him!”
“What do you mean? You seem like you’ve been together forever! You two are so in tune with each other” Millie questioned.
By now I was walking alongside her on the sand, leading the horse with his old rope headstall.
“Are we? I’ve never had a horse before. He just arrived at my shack one day a few weeks ago and hasn’t left since!”
“Wow, he’s such a nice old fellow. He must belong to someone so we must find out where he’s from. Someone might be missing him”.
“You’re right” I said, but dreading having to give him up. “You seem to know a lot about horses – can you ride?”
“I’ve had some lessons and done some trail rides, but I’m no expert” said Millie
“Would you like to have a ride?” I said excitedly, wondering why I hadn’t asked her before.
“Oh, yes please, thought you’d never ask!” she teased.
“I’ll give you a bunk”, and then nervously realised it meant I’d have to touch her.
“Sure” she said confidently and bent her left leg for me to hoist her up. She sat confidently atop the old brown horse and his ears pricked forward and he drew himself up. Perhaps he was aware of how special his passenger was.
Millie competently kicked him into a trot then a canter and I saw her flying down the beach, her blonde curls flying out behind her. They splashed through the waves and jumped over driftwood. Wow, she’s amazing, I thought; simultaneously frightened she’d come to some harm, and exhilarated by how well she could ride. How far would they go? But to my amazement, the old brown horse slowed to a trot, then a gentle walk and took Millie right up to the verandah of the old shack.
Some time later I caught up with them, puffed from having to run on my own legs. Millie was flushed with the rush of her ride, and the old brown horse was flecked with foam.
“Are you alright?” I enquired as I caught my breath.
“Yes, that was amazing! I felt totally safe with this old fella” she said stroking his neck and gently blowing warm air into his nostrils.
After we’d rested for a while and had a cool drink, I said “we’d better get you home, or Charlotte will be wondering where you are”.
“Ok, but she’s probably not even noticed I’m gone – she’s more interested in parading in front of the rugby players” Millie said with an air of resignation.
“We’ll let the old fella rest here under the tree, and I’ll walk you back” I offered.
“Thank you, that would be nice.”
We walked along the sand, close but not touching, but I could feel electricity in the space between us. We talked easily and the more we talked, the more beautiful Millie became.
“I’ll ask around and see if anyone knows where the horse came from” suggested Millie.
The next day, we met again at the usual place. The scruffy brown horse greeted her with a snicker and my heart surged. He could feel what a good person she was too.
“Hiya! I’ve asked around and I think I know where this lovely old chap came from” Millie said as we met.
“Oh, what did you find?” I said, not knowing if I really wanted to know. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to give him up already.
“It seems the stables a few miles from here were sending their old horses off to the knackery. There was an accident and most of the horses escaped from the truck. All but one were recaptured and sent on their way. Seems as though your fella was the lucky one and found you instead!”
My heart skipped a beat. No-one wanted him – I could keep him! “So, looks like he’s yours! But I really think he needs a name!” said Millie, sensing my relief.
I reached down and patted the old fellow on his neck “Thank goodness” I breathed into his matted mane. “What do you think we should call him?”. And at that moment, I realised that “I” had become “we” and Millie had become as much a part of my life as the old brown horse had.
“I think we should call him Mr Bertram” she exclaimed triumphantly.
“Mr Bertram? That’s an odd name for a horse” I queried.
“Haven’t you read Shakespeare?”
“Um, no. I’m not a great scholar; prefer to build things with my hands!”
“Oh, well, he’s a character in All’s Well That Ends Well and I thought it was apt” Millie said a little deflated.
“That’s perfect! I love it! Mr Bertram, or Mr B for short it is!!”.
The rest of the Summer was spent together – Mr B, Millie and I. We talked, we rode, we jumped logs, we splashed in the waves and we fell in love.
As the weather cooled, and school beckoned, we wondered what we’d do with Mr B. He was old but he was content. We erected some basic fences around the shack, made sure he had plenty of water and visited him as often as we could.
Millie finished school and I started an apprenticeship, but at every chance we had, we visited Mr B and made sure he was happy. He was too old to ride by now, but we took him for a gentle stroll to the waves and he pawed at the sand and we knew he was at ease.
Millie and I were an item and we were never apart for long. One Friday after work we headed to the shack to check on Mr B. As soon as we arrived I knew something was wrong. He didn’t greet us at the gate. I walked around the shack and to my great sadness I found him lying under his favourite tree, still but peaceful. Millie joined me and we shed some tears – he’d brought us together and now he was gone. We dug a very large grave that took us all night, said our goodbyes and left the shack. He was always going to be with us, but it was time for us to move on.
Sixty two years later, I lost my Millie to cancer. My two great loves are now gone, but I have my memories and am grateful for the wonderful times we had.
“I think it’s bedtime now Robert” says the night shift nurse.
The remnants of red wine in my glass are well and truly dried, and the sun has long since set.
“Ok love, I’m ready now”.