What I know is this.
The people of Lambeth call my father the Centaur.
In three days we sail to Versailles. The moon is not full but its light is reflected on the flat, dark water of the Thames, which flows inexorably to meet the Channel; the charts are criss-crossed with lines signifying the currents, to whose tug and pull we must attend like the soft mouth of an unbroken horse.
My first memory: he lifts me onto the back of his charger, Gibraltar, gifted to him by General Eliot on his return from Prussia. It is not white; rather, a mixture of mottled grays and black flecks, which, I will learn, are camouflaged with whitewash before every show. I grasp the withers, handfuls of wiry mane cutting into my fingers.
I feel its breath in my legs.
The walls stretch upwards, the rows of empty benches repeating to infinity, and then the sky beyond, gathering up a storm over Halfpenny Hatch. Drops of rain explode onto the sawdust, and my hands come away white. My father murmurs at Gibraltar’s head and the horse, which a moment before had seemed as immovable as the earth, now dips and ripples beneath me like water. I look between the ears, curved like twin scimitars, and the horse lets out a bellow which gathers in my ribcage until I can hardly tell which one of us is roaring.
You’ve heard the stories: the horse, rearing with fright, falling from the troopship at a Hamburg port, that my father dove in after and swam back with, against the tide, his hand grasping its bridle; the charge at enemy hussars during which his horse was shot from under him; latterly the showman of London, riding two horses abreast along the highway, one foot planted on each of them, his voice bringing it all to a standstill.
Or perhaps it’s the story of the diamond ring you’re familiar with, chanced upon at Westminster Bridge, its glittering inlay catching his eye from the mud, that began it all?
Listen: there was no ring, at least not of the type a rich man wears on his finger.
The first act I performed, aged eight, was a re-enactment of the Titan wars against the Olympians. As I repaired the costumes and washed the paint off the horses, I envisaged the titanic scribe seeing the funeral parade return. He goes to his tablet, chipping the first mark to tell of their defeat, and then he pauses, recasts his chisel and while acrid smell from the pyre stings his nostrils, writes of the victorious homecoming of the Titan.
Within the year, Gibraltar was dead. My father ordered a roof built over the structure, blocking out the changeable clouds, and a man named Charles Hughes came to work for him.
Let me tell you how it goes.
It begins on Midsummer’s Eve in 1759, a hundred and fifty miles northwest of here in a town built on the banks of the Lyme, on a night when two paths are laid out before us and everything is possible.
Young Astley does not hurry home, though he should have been back at the workshop hours ago. Instead, his hands bear the tang of saddle soap and horse spit from the coach-house, and the smell makes him resolute.
He climbs in through the narrow window at the side of the workshop, landing with a scuff of sawdust. The silhouettes of lathes and augers hang above the bench and he waits for his eyes to adjust to pick out any visions of his father hiding in a darkened corner behind a half-constructed cabinet, chisel in hand, eager for its flat edge to connect with the soft skin at the back of his knees. But there is nothing, and he opens the door into the cottage. Lizzy, his sister, sits at the scrubbed table, head bent. She could be his mother, except that he remembers leading her through the long grass by the banks of the Lyme on the back of a Saint Bernard. She had been small then, sliding around on the dog’s narrow back, cheeks pink and grass-lashed.
She looks up at him with their father’s pale eyes.
He talks quickly. ‘I’m going South, Liz. With a fine gentlemen, or at least one in possession of a fine pair of warmbloods.’ The feverish urge to laugh runs through him.
‘So – what? You’ve come to bid me a tearful goodbye?’ She shakes her head. She is standing now, hands tented against the tabletop. ‘Come in, quietly, before you wake him.’
‘You have woken him.’ Edward is leaning heavily against the doorframe, grey hair tufted up on one side. On somebody else it might look comical; on Edward it lends him a demonic air, like a Beelzebub’s horn. He lurches into the room, into the light, and Astley sidesteps him.
‘That’s right, always dodging: your responsibilities, your family, honest work. You’ve make it into an art, sure enough. You’ll be going nowhere.’ He takes the strap from the mantelpiece and winds it around his fist. It has been years since Edward was able to get him across his knee, but Astley still feels a mixture of fear and shame at the sight of the leather strap, the way a dog recognises the boot that finds the tender place between kidney and rib; his father favours stealth attacks of late, and is creative with his choice of missile.
Edward’s nightgown barely covers his crotch, the hem trembling somewhere above his pale knees. The sight makes something collapse inside Astley, and Edward, who has been sidling towards him, chooses this moment to dart towards Liz. The strap strikes her on the cheekbone and sends her reeling.
‘Couldn’t dodge that, could you son?’ Edward taps his temple with a crooked forefinger. When Astley starts towards him the old man flinches back but his laughter doesn’t stop. ‘Go on,’ he says, spittle flicking from his teeth. From across the room, Liz watches them. The swelling is rising already beneath the welt, a thumb’s breadth shy of her eye.
The gentleman’s name is Lancaster, and the horses are warmbloods from German stock that he’s hoping to sell into the regiments as cavalry. They are joined by two dozen fellow pilgrims, and along the way other contingencies travelling south are absorbed into their herd. It is safer this way, and invites camaraderie, among men and equines alike. Their company brings the children running out of the houses when they ride through the villages, hooves clattering on the cobbles and bouncing off the houses like the sound of applause. Arriving in the inn at Tamworth, there are boys not much younger than Astley, waiting to lead the animals, fetch water and rub salve into the cracks of the saddles and rub the horses down with wisps.
They reach Coventry at the end of the week, arriving at the horse fair as afternoon blends into evening. The smoke from hundreds of campfires drifts over the town. The horses prick their ears, flicking them back and forth in the haze like great moths, and rumble deep in their throats in reply to the sounds of their kin. It is another sound which speaks to Astley, his mouth and eyes and hair full of dust, blisters on every limb: above the calls of horses and of men, the dissonant strains of a string instrument and straggling voices, comes the clang of blades. They are singing to him.
The company gather on the banks of the River Sowe. Astley has never seen so many horses together in one place – pied ones with wall-eyes, barrel-bellied ponies and enormous shires, feather trailing in the water like seaweed. There is the smell of hot earth, mud, sweat and wet horse as they jostle to the bank. Astley’s yearling approaches with its neck stuck straight out in front, making puffing noises which make Astley bounce in the saddle.
He plants himself in the mud at its shoulder and they move forwards together until it is fetlock deep. Its nostrils flare, and it lets out a bellow which makes Astley’s ears hurt, then dips its head to drink.
There are shouts from the water, and the horse whips it head up so fast it narrowly avoids hitting Astley in the face; Grisham is on his feet in the middle of the river, where a rise of stones and gravel mean the water, in places, is shallower. In one hand he holds the reins, which are taut because the foam-flecked head of his horse is straining in the opposite direction, ears flat against its skull. In Grisham’s other hand is his whip. At the other end of that is a cowering bundle of rags, atop a horse so emaciated that even with the proximity of the commotion, it stands, head lowered, the tendons in its neck standing out. It has expended all its energy taking a sly kick at the shiny chestnut gelding, and has now withdrawn, once again, from the world, leaving its owner, and engineer of its misfortune, to deal with the consequences. Water flies in a glistening arc as Grisham strikes the rag man with his whip, then turns his attention to the bony horse, striking it on the face. It screams like caught rabbit.
In the morning, Lancaster, Grisham and Astley go the Boar’s Head where the recruits, tempted by cheap beer and displays of swordsmanship, are queuing up to enlist.
‘They may look appealing now,’ Lancaster says to them. ‘When you’re waist-deep in mud and surrounded by the enemy you may think differently.’
‘Or I may not,’ says Astley.
‘That’s true,’ says Lancaster. ‘Most likely, though, you won’t get time to think anything at all.’
‘Planning to become a redcoat, are you?’ says Grisham to Astley.
‘I might be.’
Lancaster shakes his head and continues to pull knots out of the manes with a stick.
‘He won’t,’ says Grisham.
When their turn comes, Astley mounts the yearlings, and one after the other, takes them in circles. Their ears flick back, listening for him, and away again to the men in red coats whose eyes look out for signs of tendonitis, laminitis, balking.
‘They’re from exceptional stock,’ says Lancaster. ‘Sire’s a German charger,’
Colonel Eliot considers; they have no shortage of offers, though most of the animals are good only for cannon-fodder. The queue stretches to the road – though he is still below quota – his beer is unpleasantly warm and he is coming out in a sweat rash beneath his uniform. But Lancaster is right; the horses move well.
‘Angelo,’ says Eliot, and a small Italian-looking man approaches the yearlings, running his hand along their shoulders to let them know he is there, before leaning down to feel their legs. Astley watches. The horses dwarf the man, but he blows gently into their nostrils and they lower their heads; he sticks his thumb in the gap between their wolf teeth and molars, tickling their tongues with a forefinger so that they open their mouths, exposing curved brownish teeth. He checks for filing-marks, and, satisfied, nods to the Colonel.
While they barter, Astley steps up to the aide-de-camp and offers up his name.
And the officers exchange looks, wondering at the audacity of this tall, lanky youth.