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Philippa Gregory, Wideacre

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  1. 1. MeridonPhilippa Gregory
  2. 2. Table of ContentsCover PageTitle PageMapChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16
  3. 3. Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28Chapter 29Chapter 30Chapter 31Chapter 32Chapter 33Chapter 34Chapter 35Chapter 36Chapter 37
  4. 4. Chapter 38Chapter 39Chapter 40Chapter 41ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSAbout the AuthorBY THE SAME AUTHORCopyrightAbout the Publisher
  5. 5. Map
  6. 6. 1‘I don’t belong here,’ I said to myself.Before I even opened my eyes. It was my morning ritual. To wardoff the smell and the dirt and the fightsand the noise of the day. To keep me inthat bright green place in my mindwhich had no proper name; I called it‘Wide’. ‘I don’t belong here,’ I said again.A dirty-faced fifteen-year-old girlfrowsy-eyed from sleep, blinking at thehard grey light filtering through thegrimy window. I looked up to thearched ceiling of the caravan, the dampsacking near my face as I lay on the topbunk; and then I glanced quickly to myleft to the bunk to see if Dandy wasawake. Dandy: my black-eyed, black-haired, equally dirty-faced sister.Dandy, the lazy one, the liar, the thief.
  7. 7. Her eyes, dark as blackberries,twinkled at me. ‘I don’t belong here,’ I whisperedonce more to the dream world of Widewhich faded even as I called to it.Then I said aloud to Dandy: ‘Getting up?’ ‘Did you dream of it – Sarah?’she asked me softly, calling me by mymagic secret name. The name I knewfrom my dreams of Wide. The magicname I use in that magic land. ‘Yes,’ I said, and I turned my faceaway from her to the stained wall andtried not to mind that Wide was just adream and a pretence. That the realworld was here. Here where theyknew nothing of Wide, had never evenheard of such a place. Where, exceptfor Dandy, they would not call meSarah when I had once asked. They hadlaughed at me and gone on calling meby my real name, Meridon.
  8. 8. ‘What did you dream?’ Dandyprobed. She was not cruel, but she wastoo curious to spare me. ‘I dreamed I had a father, a greatbig fair-headed man and he lifted meup. High, high up on to his horse. And Irode before him, down a lane awayfrom our house and past some fields.Then up a path which went higher andhigher, and through a wood and out tothe very top of the fields, and hepointed his horse to look back downthe way we had come, and I saw ourhouse: a lovely square yellow house,small as a toy house on the greenbelow us.’ ‘Go on,’ said Dandy. ‘Shut up you two,’ a muffledvoice growled in the half-light of thecaravan. ‘It’s still night.’ ‘It ain’t,’ I said, instantlyargumentative. My father’s dark,tousled head peered around the head of
  9. 9. his bunk and scowled at me. ‘I’ll strapyou,’ he warned me. ‘Go to sleep.’ I said not another word. Dandywaited and in a few moments she said,in a whisper so soft that our da – hishead buried beneath the dirty blankets– could not hear, ‘What then?’ ‘We rode home,’ I said, screwingmy eyes tight to re-live the vision ofthe little red-headed girl and the fairman and the great horse and the coolgreen of the arching beech trees overthe drive. ‘And then he let me ridealone.’ Dandy nodded, but she wasunimpressed. We had both been on andaround horses since we were weaned.And I had no words to convey thedelight of the great strides of the horsein the dream. ‘He was telling me how to ride,’ Isaid. My voice went quieter still, andmy throat tightened. ‘He loved me,’ I
  10. 10. said miserably. ‘He did. I could tell bythe way he spoke to me. He was my da– but he loved me.’ ‘And then?’ said Dandy,impatient. ‘I woke up,’ I said. ‘That wasall.’ ‘Didn’t you see the house, or yourclothes or the food?’ she askeddisappointed. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Not this time.’ ‘Oh,’ she said and was silent amoment. ‘I wish I could dream of itlike you do,’ she said longingly.‘’Taint fair.’ A warning grunt from the bedmade us lower our voices again. ‘I wish I could see it,’ she said. ‘You will,’ I promised. ‘It is areal place. It is real somewhere. Iknow that somewhere it is a real place.And we will both be there, someday.’ ‘Wide,’ she said. ‘It’s a funny
  11. 11. name.’ ‘That’s not the whole name,’ Isaid cautiously. ‘Not quite Wide.Maybe it’s something-Wide. I neverhear it clear enough. I listen and Ilisten but I’m never quite sure of it. Butit’s a real place. It is real somewhere.And it’s where I belong.’ I lay on my back and looked at thestains on the sacking roof of thecaravan and smelled the stink of fourpeople sleeping close with nowindows open, the acid smell of staleurine from last night’s pot. ‘It’s real somewhere,’ I said tomyself. ‘It has to be.’ There were three good things inmy life, that dirty painful life of agypsy child with a father who carednothing for her, and a stepmother whocared less. There was Dandy my twinsister – as unlike me as if I were achangeling. There were the horses we
  12. 12. trained and sold. And there was thedream of Wide. If it had not been for Dandy I thinkI would have run away as soon as Iwas old enough to leave. I would haveupped and gone, run off to one of thesleepy little villages in the New Forestin that hot summer of 1805 when I wasfifteen. That was the summer I turnedon Da and stood up to him for the firsttime ever. We had been breaking a pony tosell as a lady’s ride. I said the horsewas not ready for a rider. Da sworeshe was. He was wrong. Anyone but anidiot could have seen that the horsewas nervy and half wild. But Da hadput her on the lunge rein two or threetimes and she had gone well enough.He wanted to put me up on her. Hedidn’t waste his breath asking Dandyto do it. She would have smiled one ofher sweet slow smiles and
  13. 13. disappeared off for the rest of the daywith a hunk of bread and rind of cheesein her pocket. She’d come back in theevening with a dead chicken tucked inher shawl so there was never a beatingfor Dandy. But he ordered me up on theanimal. A half-wild, half-foolish foaltoo young to be broke, too frightened tobe ridden. ‘She’s not ready,’ I said lookingat the flaring nostrils and the rollingwhites of her eyes and smelling thatspecial acrid smell of fearful sweat. ‘She’ll do,’ Da said. ‘Get up onher.’ I looked at Da, not at the horse.Da’s dark eyes were red rimmed, thestubble on his chin stained his faceblue. The red kerchief at his neckshowed bright against his pallor. Hehad been drinking last night and Iguessed he felt ill. He had no patience
  14. 14. to stand in the midday sunshine with askittish pony on a lunge rein. ‘I’ll lunge her,’ I offered. ‘I’lltrain her for you.’ ‘You’ll ride her, you cheeky dog,’he said to me harshly. ‘No whelp tellsme how to train a horse.’ ‘What’s the hurry?’ I asked,backing out of arm’s reach. Da had tohold the horse and could not grab me. ‘I got a buyer,’ he said. ‘A farmerat Beaulieu wants her for his daughter.But he wants her next week for herbirthday or summat. So she’s got to beready for then.’ ‘I’ll lunge her,’ I offered again.‘I’ll work her all day, and tomorrow orthe day after I’ll get up on her.’ ‘You get up now,’ he saidharshly. Then he raised his voice andyelled: ‘Zima!’ and my stepmothercame out into the sunshine from thegloomy caravan. ‘Hold ‘er,’ he said
  15. 15. nodding at the horse and she jumpeddown from the caravan step, and wentpast me without a word. ‘I want summat inside the wagon,’he said under his breath and I stoodaside like a fool to let him go past me.But as soon as he was near he grabbedme with one hard grimy hand andtwisted my arm behind my back sohard that I could hear the bone creakand I squeaked between clenched teethfor the pain. ‘Get up on ‘er,’ he said softly inmy ear; his breath foul. ‘Or I’ll beatyou till you can’t ride ‘er, nor anyother for a week.’ I jerked away from him: sullen,ineffective. And I scowled at mystepmother who stood, picking herteeth with her free hand and watchingthis scene. She had never stoodbetween me and him in my life. Shehad seen him beat me until I went
  16. 16. down on my knees and cried and criedfor him to stop. The most she had everdone for me was to tell him to stopbecause the noise of my sobbing wasdisturbing her own baby. I felt that Iwas utterly unloved, utterly uncaredfor; and that was no foolish girl’s fear.That was the bitter truth. ‘Get up,’ Da said again, and cameto the horse’s head. I looked at him with a gaze asflinty as his own. ‘I’ll get up and she’llthrow me,’ I said. ‘You know that, sodo I. And then I’ll get on her again andagain and again. We’ll never train herlike that. If you had as much brainsinside you as you have beer, you’d letme train her. Then at least we’d have asweet-natured animal to show thisfarmer. The way you want to do itwe’ll show him a whipped idiot.’ I had never spoken to him like thatbefore. My voice was steady but my
  17. 17. belly quivered with fright at my daring. He looked at me for a long hardmoment. ‘Get up,’ he said. Nothing hadchanged. I waited for one moment, in case Ihad a chance, or even half a chance towin my way in this. His face wasflinty-hard, and I was only a younggirl. I met his gaze for a moment. Hecould see the fight go out of me. I checked he was holding thehorse tight at the head and then I turnedand gripped hold of the saddle andsprang up. As soon as she felt the weight ofme on her back she leaped like amountain goat, stiff-legged sideways;and stood there trembling like a leafwith the shock. Then, as if she had onlywaited to see that it was not someterrible nightmare, she reared boltupright to her full height, dragging the
  18. 18. reins from Da’s hands. Da, like a fool,let go – as I had known all along hewould – and there was nothing then tocontrol the animal except the halteraround her neck. I clung on like alimpet, gripping the pommel of thesaddle while she went like a sprintingbullock – alternately head down andhooves up bucking, and then standinghigh on her hind legs and clawing theair with her front hooves in an effort tobe rid of me. There was nothing in theworld to do but to cling on like grimdeath and hope that Da would be quickenough to catch the trailing reins andget the animal under control before Icame off. I saw him coming towardsthe animal, and he was quite close. Butthe brute wheeled with an awkwardsideways shy which nearly unseatedme. I was off-balance and grabbing forthe pommel of the saddle to get myselfinto the middle of her back again when
  19. 19. she did one of her mighty rears and Iwent rolling backwards off her back tothe hard ground below. I bunched up as I fell, in aninstinctive crouch, fearing the flailinghooves. I felt the air whistle as shekicked out over my head but shemissed by an inch and galloped awayto the other side of the field. Da,cursing aloud, went after her, runningpast me without even a glance in mydirection to see how I fared. I sat up. My stepmother Zimalooked at me without interest. I got wearily to my feet. I wasshaken but not hurt except for thebruises on my back where I had hit theground. Da had hold of the reins andwas whipping the poor animal aroundthe head while she reared andscreamed in protest. I watched stony-faced. You’d never catch me wastingsympathy on a horse which had thrown
  20. 20. me. Or on anything else. ‘Get up,’ he said without lookingaround for me. I walked up behind him andlooked at the horse. She was a prettyenough animal, half New Forest, halfsome bigger breed. Dainty, with abright bay-coloured coat whichglowed in the sunlight. Her mane andtail were black, coarse and knottednow, but I would wash her before thebuyer came. I saw that Da hadwhipped her near the eye and a pieceof the delicate eyelid was bleedingslightly. ‘You fool,’ I said in cold disgust.‘Now you’ve hurt her, and it’ll showwhen the buyer comes.’ ‘Don’t you call me a fool, mygirl,’ he said rounding on me, the whipstill in his hands. ‘Another word out ofyou and you get a beating you won’tforget. I’ve had enough from you for
  21. 21. one day. Now get up on that horse andstay on this time.’ I looked at him with the blankinsolence which I knew drove him intomindless temper with me. I pushed thetangled mass of my copper-colouredhair away from my face and stared athim with my green eyes as inscrutableas a cat. I saw his hand tighten on thewhip and I smiled at him, delighting inmy power; even if it lasted for no morethan this morning. ‘And who’d ride her then?’ Itaunted. ‘I don’t see you getting up onan unbroke horse. And Zima couldn’tget on a donkey with a ladder againstits side. There’s no one who can rideher but me. And I don’t choose to thismorning. I’ll do it this afternoon.’ With that, I turned on my heel andwalked away from him, swaying myhips in as close an imitation of mystepmother’s languorous slink as I
  22. 22. could manage. Done by a skinny fifteenyear old in a skirt which barelycovered her calves it was far fromsensual. But it spoke volumes ofdefiance to my da who let out a greatbellow of rage and dropped thehorse’s reins and came after me. He spun me around and shook meuntil my hair fell over my face and Icould hardly see his red angry face. ‘You’ll do as I order or I’ll throwyou out!’ he said in utter rage. ‘You’lldo as I order or I’ll beat you as soon asthe horse is sold. You’d betterremember that I am as ready to beatyou tomorrow night as I am today. Ihave a long memory for you.’ I shook my head to get the hair outof my eyes, and to clear my mind. Iwas only fifteen and I could not holdon to courage against Da when hestarted bullying me. My shouldersslumped and my face lost its
  23. 23. arrogance. I knew he would rememberthis defiance if I did not surrendernow. I knew that he would beat me –not only when the horse was sold, butagain every time he remembered it. ‘All right,’ I said sullenly. ‘Allright. I’ll ride her.’ Together we cornered her in theedge of the field and this time he heldtighter on to the reins when I was onher back. I stayed on a little longer butagain and again she threw me. By thetime Dandy was home with a vaguesecretive smile and a rabbit stolenfrom someone else’s snare danglingfrom her hand, I was in my bunkcovered with bruises, my headthudding with the pain of falling overand over again. She brought me a plate of rabbitstew where I lay. ‘Come on out,’ she invited. ‘He’sall right, he’s drinking. And he’s got
  24. 24. some beer for Zima too, so she’s allright. Come on out and we can godown to the river and swim. That’llhelp your bruising.’ ‘No,’ I said sullenly. ‘I’m goingto sleep. I don’t want to come out and Idon’t care whether he’s fair or foul. Ihate him. I wish he was dead. Andstupid Zima too. I’m staying here, andI’m going to sleep.’ Dandy stretched up so that shecould reach me in the top bunk andnuzzled her face against my cheek.‘Hurt bad?’ she asked softly. ‘Bad on the outside and badinside,’ I said, my voice low. ‘I wishhe was dead. I’ll kill him myself whenI’m bigger.’ Dandy stroked my forehead withher cool dirty hand. ‘And I’ll helpyou,’ she said with a ripple of laughterin her voice. ‘The Ferenz family arenearby, they’re going down to the river
  25. 25. to swim. Come too, Meridon!’ I sighed. ‘Not me,’ I said. ‘I’mtoo sore, and angry. Stay with me,Dandy.’ She brushed the bruise on myforehead with her lips. ‘Nay,’ she saidsweetly. ‘I’m away with the Ferenzboys. I’ll be back at nightfall.’ I nodded. There was no keepingDandy if she wanted to be out. ‘Will you have to ridetomorrow?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And the next day.The farmer’s coming for the horse onSunday. She’s got to be ridable bythen. But I pity his daughter!’ In the half-light of the caravan Isaw Dandy’s white teeth gleam. ‘Is it a bad horse?’ she asked, acareless ripple of amusement in hervoice. ‘It’s a pig,’ I said plainly. ‘I’ll beable to stay on it, but the little Miss
  26. 26. Birthday Girl will likely break herneck the first time she tries to ride.’ We chuckled spitefully. ‘Don’t quarrel with himtomorrow,’ Dandy urged me. ‘It onlymakes him worse. And you’ll neverwin.’ ‘I know,’ I said dully. ‘I know I’llnever win. But I can’t keep quiet likeyou. I can’t even go away like you do.I’ve never been able to. But as soon asI can, I’m going. As soon as I can seesomewhere to go, I’m going.’ ‘And I’ll come too,’ Dandy said,repeating a long-ago promise. ‘Butdon’t make him angry tomorrow. Hesaid he’d beat you if you do.’ ‘I’ll try not,’ I said with littlehope, and handed my empty plate toher. Then I turned my face away fromher, from the shady caravan and thetwilit doorway. I turned my face to thecurved wall at the side of my bunk and
  27. 27. gathered the smelly pillow under myface. I shut my eyes tight and wishedmyself far away. Far away from theaches in my body and from the dreadand fear in my mind. From my disgustat my father and my hatred of Zima.From my helpless impotent love forDandy and my misery at my ownhopeless, dirty, poverty-strickenexistence. I shut my eyes tight and thought ofmyself as the copper-headed daughterof the squire who owned Wide. Ithought of the trees reflected in thewaters of the trout river. I thought ofthe house and the roses growing socreamy and sweet in the gardensoutside the house. As I drifted intosleep I willed myself to see the diningroom with the fire flickering in thehearth and the pointy flames of thecandles reflected in the great mahoganytable, and the servants in livery
  28. 28. bringing in dish after dish of food. Myeternally hungry body ached at thethought of all those rich creamy dishes.But as I fell asleep, I was smiling.The next day he was not bad from thedrink so he was quicker to the horse’shead, and held her tighter. I stayed onfor longer, and for at least two falls Ilanded on my feet, sliding off her tofirst one side and then the other, andavoiding that horrid nerve-joltingslump on to hard ground. He nodded at me when westopped for our dinner – the remains ofthe rabbit stew watered down as soup,and a hunk of old bread. ‘Will you be able to stay on herfor long enough tomorrow?’ ‘Yes,’ I said confidently. ‘Willwe be moving off the next day?’ ‘That same night!’ Da saidcarelessly. ‘I know that horse will
  29. 29. never make a lady’s ride. She’svicious.’ I held my peace. I knew wellenough that she had been a good horsewhen we first had her. If she had beencarefully and lovingly trained Dawould have made a good sale to aQuality home. But he was only everchasing a quick profit. He had seen aman who wanted a quiet ride for hislittle girl’s birthday, and next thing hewas breaking from scratch a two-year-old wild pony. It was coarse stupidity– and it was that doltish chasing aftertiny profits which angered me the most. ‘She’s not trained to side-saddle,’was all I said. ‘No,’ said Da. ‘But if you washyour face and get Zima to plait yourhair you can go astride and still looklike a novice girl. If he sees you on her– and you mind not to come off – he’llbuy her.’
  30. 30. I nodded, and pulled a handful ofgrass to wipe out my bowl. I hadsucked and spat out a scrap of gristle,and I tossed it to the scrawny lurchertied under the wagon. He snapped at itand took it with him back into theshadow. The hot midday sun made r