Estelle looked out of her grimy bedroom window across the yard. She could see the other grooms leading ponies into the arena for the next lesson. Children happily trying on hard hats by the office door, watched over by proud slightly anxious parents. She smiled to herself and started to turn away, contemplating what to do with her rare day off, when she spotted something out of the corner of her eye. The colour began to drain from her face as she lent forward for a closer look. Stood alone shivering in the side paddock, at the back of the stable block stood Margi’s prized welsh show pony. The most pampered and sickly pony on the yard. Damn Louise she’d left it out all night again, she thought. Estelle grabbed her old jodhpurs and began pulling them on as quickly as possible. Maybe if she was quick Margi wouldn’t notice. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop Margi from hurting Louise this time. She grabbed her coat and hair bobble and rushed out of her bedroom door. She only made it three steps down the staircase when the shouting started.
Pausing for a moment, she felt the old fear and dread curdling in her stomach; she gripped on to the banister to steady herself. The yard owner and Estelle’s foster mother Margi was a huge bullying woman. More than once in the last sixteen years Estelle had been beaten until she couldn’t stand over some minor mistake. Estelle shook her head quickly, blocking out the memories that threatened to crowd in and overwhelm her, there wasn’t time, not if she was going to save Louise. Taking a deep breath she slowly sauntered the rest of the way down the stairs, pushing the living room door open she caught a glimpse of a crying Louise being pinned up against the wall by her throat with her feet dangling. The fear rushed back in full force and for a moment it brought Estelle to her knees. Then she straightened her back and deliberately pushed the door wide open. ‘What are you doing mommy dearest?’ she asked as insolently as possible; Louise’s only chance was if she could turn Margi’s anger on herself giving Louise a chance to run. Flicking her long black hair over her shoulder she turned to look at Margi. ‘Why are you cuddling the hired help? Got a thing for girls now, have you?’ that did it Margi dropped Louise and lunged for Estelle. It’s not over yet thought Estelle. Louise was still trapped between Margi’s bulk and the door. Taking another deep breath she had one last go, ‘So mommy dearest do I need to lock my door on a night, will you be after my arse too?’ Margi got her, in that moment she felt her large hands tighten around her throat and the punches rain down on her body. There was a surreal moment where she felt herself drift away from her body and watch Louise run for the door. There was no attempt to save her, no one ever did. Then there was nothing but darkness and pain.
She awoke and found herself lying on a cold hard floor, it was pitch black but that didn’t matter. Estelle knew from experience exactly where she was and how long she was likely to be in the coal cellar. She carefully felt along her body and tried to gauge how much damage there was. Her head was banging and felt sticky in patches so she knew her hair must be mattered with blood. Her ribs, back and legs felt bruised and tender, deep breaths were impossible. Giving up on her exploration she lay on her side and cried, silent tears to wash the pain away.
After what felt like an eternity the cellar door finally opened. The sudden blast of light combined with no food or water, made her feel disorientated and weak. She crawled blindly towards the light. ‘Hurry up or do you want to stay down there?’ came Margi’s low harsh voice, ‘I’ve let the other grooms go, so you’ve got work to do.’ Same as usual, the irrelevant thought popped into Estelle’s head making her want to laugh. No witnesses, no help, no way out. There is this time, came a small voice inside Estelle’s head. She shook her head sadly to herself, what was the point in hoping. Then as she reached the top step and looked out into the kitchen she caught a glimpse of the calendar. Six days to her seventeenth birthday, if she could intercept the social services letter and sign it to end her foster placement, she would be free. Hope surged through her. This time no one would drag her back.
She laboriously rose to her feet; deliberately keeping her head down; frightened that Margi might read her plan in her eyes and find a way to stop her. She knew Margi wasn’t planning to let her go. ‘I’m sorry ‘she whispered , ‘just get out and sort out the ponies, they haven’t been mucked out for a week and I want this yard open for lessons as soon as possible, your costing me money!’ came the angry reply. She felt herself shoved towards the door. A week! No wonder I feel so weak she thought.
Estelle dragged herself toward the tack room and opened her locker, inside was her emergency supply of water and food. She’d gone through this too many times not to be prepared. Feeling slightly better she went off to start the huge number of jobs waiting for her.
Margi watched her from the kitchen window; she knew she’d gone too far this time. Looking at the pale inert body she’d laid in the cellar, she hadn’t been sure she’d still be alive when she’d let her out today. Her mind made up, she reached for the phone and dialled her friend in the social services, and it was time to get a younger more manageable girl. She’d let Estelle escape, that way she’d keep her mouth shut, so she couldn’t find her. The thought made her laugh out loud. It was a strange ugly noise only stopped by the answering of the phone.
Margi was strangely absent the next few days, Estelle didn’t know where but she was grateful for the chance it gave her to prepare for her escape. She packed as much of her clothes and belongings as she could without it being noticeable. Most importantly she needed her riding gear, as that was the only work she knew. Margi was again out the day the letter arrived. Estelle ran to check through the mail the minute she’d seen the postman close the garden gate and walk away. Gathering the letters up she quickly scanned through until she spotted the social services stamped letter. Her hands shook. This was it. She was unsure what to do next; frightened that Margi would walk in at any second. Taking a deep breath she walked into the kitchen and pulled the tool box out from under the kitchen sink. Her heart beat so loud and fast all she could hear was its beating. Rifling through she found a crowbar and headed towards Margi’s study. She knew her birth certificate was in the locked drawer on the left hand side of the desk. Looking round, checking she was alone, she quickly smashed her way into the desk. There sat a folder with her name on it. It felt strange taking it out. She felt afraid of touching it. Don’t be ridiculous she told herself and hurry up. She ran from the room; taking the stairs two at a time, she rushed to her room. Opening the wardrobe she grabbed the carefully hidden rucksack and stuffed the folder and letter inside. If she was really quick she’d have chance to get her stuff from the tack room. Without a backward glance she ran from the house. Leaving her rucksack slightly hidden on the track outside the stables, she went back to try and get the stuff she really needed. Looking around for Margi’s jeep, she crossed the yard, heading straight for the tack room. She empted the contents of her locker into the second rucksack; she’d found a few days ago in the under stairs cupboard. In tumbled, boots, brushes, hats, whips, chaps, spurs, head collars, ropes. Once it was full she took her precious back protector off its peg and carefully placed it on top of the pile. Gemma, one of the previous grooms had given it to her one Christmas and it was the only gift she’d ever received. Shutting the bag it was time to go. She took a second to look around the yard at all the horses and ponies, they’d been her only real friends and she felt traitorous leaving without saying goodbye. Shaking her head, she made for the gate and freedom, there just wasn’t time. Grabbing her other rucksack from its hiding place she made her way down the track. If she could just get on the bus before Margi came back she was in with a chance.
Estelle couldn’t believe her luck; the bus came almost straight away. She chose the last stop, which was Leeds, the nearest city. She’d be able to lose herself there while she decided what to do. She piled her bags up on the seat next to her and made herself comfy. Willing the other passengers to hurry and get on so the bus would move. She continued to nervously scan the road for any signs of Margi’s jeep. The bus pulled away and quickly gained distance from the stables, Estelle’s confidence soared, maybe this time she’d finally done it. She got the letter and folder out of her bag and sat looking at them, unsure which to open first. She picked the letter. It was the usual official blurb for end of placement leavers, they would help her find alternative accommodation, benefits etc. not really of any use to her she thought, when she needed to disappear so she couldn’t be dragged back. She was looking for where she had to sign, when a sentence caught her eye, they had placed a grant for a thousand pounds in her bank account towards furniture etc that she would need for her new life. Estelle was confused, she didn’t have a bank account, all the money she had, was in her purse, carefully saved from tips she’d received from happy parents, who’d enjoyed her teaching of their children. Her eyes went to the unopened folder. Hand’s shaking; she flipped the lid open and peered inside. There was a new passport, her birth certificate, a bank card, a letter and a few documents. She lifted out the letter with trepidation; opening it she saw Margi’s distinctive handwriting.
You have everything you need to start a new life, do not come back or I will make you wish you had never been born.
Estelle, let out her breath with a whoosh, she hadn’t realised she’d been holding it. Margi had let her go. Hope and fear fought inside her, it was too good to be true and she knew she could just be playing some twisted game, so disappearing was still the only option.
She looked at her birth certificate; it appeared she was Estelle O’Brien, daughter of an Irish traveller, with father unknown. She looked at the social services documents next; her mother had died alone, in childbirth, on the outskirts of the small market town of Thirsk in North Yorkshire. She had been found in the caravan, hours after birth by passers by and taken to North Allerton hospital. No relatives had come forward so she had passed into the foster care system. She sat there feeling lost and alone for a few moments, she’d never really considered having a family but knowing there wasn’t one was hard to face. Shoving the papers back in the folder she looked out of the window, Leeds bus station was approaching. She took out the bank card, turning it over in her hand with wonder, maybe there would be money, enough to help her get away. She riffled around in the folder till she found the pin number. Then sliding them in her pocket she, put everything else back in her bag and prepared to get off the bus.
Estelle scanned the bus station for a cash point, spotting one on the far side of the station she pushed her way through the crowds to get to it; it must be market day, she thought absentmindedly, the last time she’d come to Leeds with Margi it had been market day too, she’d been really surprised by the number of people. Finally reaching her destination she put the card into the slot and typed in the newly memorised numbers. Choosing balance, she hardly dare look and then there it was, ten thousand pounds. Estelle took a deep breath; it couldn’t be possible, could it? She asked for a mini statement, true enough it came back exactly the same. She didn’t understand what game Margi was playing and needed time to think. Making sure she had her card and statement, she turned away from the machine and walked back towards the crowds. I’ll get something to eat she thought, spotting a café, across the busy road, next to the newsagents. She went into the newsagents first and bought a copy of Horse and Hound, then into the café. It was a luxury she’d never had before and was a little unsure what to do. Just then a young blonde waitress came over smiling, ‘Table for one is it? This way, I’ll sit you near the back then there’s room for your bags’. Estelle followed along behind, ‘Here’s the menu, I’d recommend the all day breakfast’ the waitress carried on talking, ‘Yes, I’ll have that and a coke’ replied Estelle, relived to have done it right. While she waited she began looking through the job section at the back of her magazine. There were lots of adverts for working pupils, and instructors and various different types of grooms. Estelle was unsure of what she was looking for until she spotted it, there in the corner, squashed between driving groom and show ponies, trainee on a competition yard. She had always wanted to compete in actual competitions, Estelle had a passion for show jumping, but Margi had only let her train the ponies for others to win rosettes on. Prizes were for paying customers she always said.
Just then the waitress returned with her food, the smell hit Estelle’s nostrils and she realised she was ravenous. She decided to pick out a few jobs to ring and apply for after breakfast. Nothing local she thought; the further away from Margi the better. She wasn’t convinced that all her help wasn’t some kind of trick.
Twenty minutes later she was standing inside the phone box, magazine and pen in hand. She’d already discovered the job she really wanted, plus two others had already gone. Looking at the job section again, she picked a horse dealing and livery yard. The advert said immediate start, full board plus wage. It was near Middlesbrough. Estelle wasn’t too sure where that was but it definitely wasn’t local, so with fingers crossed she dialled. After a couple of rings a lady’s voice answered. She had a beautiful sing song kind of accent, ‘Hello, hello…’ for a moment Estelle had forgotten to answer. ‘Hello,’ she stammered, ‘I’d like to enquire about the job, is it still available?’ The lady laughed, ‘
Yes, love it is’ she said in an ironic tone. ‘There’s not too many people imagine themselves on a yard like ours. They mostly want to be show jumpers.’ Estelle blushed, she was glad the lady couldn’t see her. ‘Have you any experience?’ the lady asked. ‘I’ve been in a foster placement, at a riding school for sixteen years and can do most jobs, but I’ve no qualifications,’ Estelle replied. The lady laughed again, ’You’ll fit right in here then honey,’ she replied, ‘ if you want to give it a try, we’ll take you on a months trial, see how we get on. I’m Sandy by the way, don’t think I introduced myself.’ ‘Yes please,’ stammered Estelle, ‘when would you like me to start?’ ‘Yesterday would be good,’ laughed Sandy. ‘Let me know when your train arrives at Middlesbrough station and I’ll come pick you up. What’s your name, honey?’ ‘Estelle, I’m at Leeds station now so I’ll go and look for a train straight away.’ ‘Ok, give me a ring when you arrive and I’ll see you tonight, bye honey.’ Sandy rang off. For a few minutes Estelle stood looking at the phone. She felt unable to move. Her whole life was about to change after a two minute conversation with a voice on a phone and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Sandy sounded friendly, she thought. I wonder what she looks like, Estelle imagined her to be blonde, plump and homely looking. Putting down the phone and picking up her bags, there’s only one way to find out she decided.
A few minutes later she stood ticket in hand on the north bound line, platform seven. The train was due in ten minutes. Looking round at the other passengers with drinks and snacks in their hands, Estelle wondered if she should buy something too. It was a long journey and she wasn’t sure if she would get fed at the other end. Looking at her watch she decided she just had time to pop into the busy sandwich shop on the station, without missing her train.
Estelle arrived back on the platform just in time for the silver train pulling in. She picked a quiet carriage and piled her bags next to her on the seat again. She was feeling exhausted although it was only a little after lunch. Having stored her packed lunch and drink in her bag for later, she watched with interest the other people boarding the train. Within minutes she was fast asleep.
She awoke several hours later to the conductor announcing her stop on the tannoy system. Quickly she jumped up and dragged her bags towards the doors; waiting for the train to stop. These bags seem to get heavier every time I lift them she thought tiredly. As the train pulled into the station, the butterflies in her stomach increased making her feel very sick. Pull yourself together; she told herself crossly, people get jobs every day. Still the voice in the back of her mind said what if no one came, no one had ever come.
Just as she stepped off the train her bag caught on the door, pulling her off her feet. She heard a voice shout in alarm but saw nothing but the rising pavement as she hurtled towards it. Then two strong arms had hold of her, followed by two more pulling her into an upright position. She found herself looking into two identical sets of brown concerned eyes. She blinked and focused properly on her two rescuers, they were both about 5ft 9, muscled with black shaggy hair. They wore similarly styled faded black jeans and tight fitting retro t shirts. ‘Thanks’ stammered Estelle feeling pretty embarrassed. ‘No problem, glad to help’ replied the first rescuer, in a sing song accent, which startled Estelle. It was the same accent Sandy had. Maybe everyone up here sounds that way she thought. ‘I’m Marc and this is my brother Seamus ‘ ‘I’m Estelle,’ ‘Hey that’s lucky, our mum told us to be back in time to pick up a girl called Estelle, who’s starting work on the yard. Is that you?’ asked Marc, ‘I guess so,’ said Estelle feeling a little nervous. ‘Its ok, our mum is Sandy,’ said Seamus in a gentler voice,’ we’re not trying to kidnap you. Honest!’ At that Marc began to laugh.’ Imagine, stolen from the train station by gypsies’ he howled. Estelle looked confused as both brothers laughed.’ I don’t understand what’s funny,’ she said quietly. But neither brother was listening. Taking a bag each they propelled her towards the car park Throwing her bags into the back of a scrap truck, Marc opened the passenger door, ‘ Jump in, if we hurry we’ll be home in time for dinner,’ Estelle’s stomach rumbled as she climbed up. Wedged between the two brothers, she started to feel hopeful that this job would be ok.
They travelled quickly out of the city, through smaller villages and on to the open moor. As they turned into a long track Estelle noticed a sign saying Moor House Farm. She started to feel nervous again. Seamus must have felt her tremble, he wrapped his arm about her shoulders and gave her a quick squeeze,’ You’ll be ok honey, just work hard and do what my Da says and it’ll soon be home.’ ‘Put her down,’ laughed Marc, Da will be thrilled your mauling the staff before she’s even started.’ Estelle began to blush, making both brothers howl with laughter.
They pulled up in front of a long, low, stone farm house; it was covered in blossom from the surrounding trees, which appeared to be hiding it. Estelle sighed; it was the most oddly beautiful place she’d ever seen. ‘Come on,’ Marc jumped out the truck and began unloading her belongings from the back. Suddenly a lady’s voice came from behind a dry stone wall, ‘Why are you boys so late, I told you, you’ve got the new girl to pick up, she hasn’t rung yet I hope she’s ok’ ‘Relax mum, she’s with us, we were on the same train and she fell into our open arms,’ Seamus replied. Both brothers began laughing again. ‘If you’ve done anything too her, your Da will skin you alive,’ Sandy appeared from behind the wall marching purposefully towards them. She was not like anything Estelle had imagined. She was tall, slim, with long blonde hair and stunningly beautiful, with the same dark concerned eyes as her sons. Estelle felt really inadequate next to this beautiful family. She wished she’d at least have had time for a shower. She knew she wasn’t beautiful. Margi had told her often enough.
‘Well, hello honey, it’s lovely to meet you, you must be ready to eat, don’t mind the boys, and come on in,’ Sandy appeared to talk without taking a breath; as she ushered her inside the house. They went into a large kitchen, which was dominated by a huge long table with benches down both sides and a large carved throne like chair at the head. ‘Take a seat honey, we’ll have dinner, then do the grand tour and paperwork.’ Sandy bustled round the kitchen, dishing up the food. ‘You boys had better get out and help your Da, since you wasted most of the day.’ The brothers lumbered out, bickering with each other over jobs.
‘Don’t mind them two honey, they’re harmless,’ Sandy smiled fondly at their disappearing backs. ‘Now, tell me about yourself,’ Estelle sat and stared for a minute, ‘Erm. There isn’t really too much to tell.’ She twisted her fingers in her lap, feeling very nervous,’ I looked after the horses and training them and that’s all there is really,’ she finished lamely. Sandy stared at her and sighed,’ Might help to know I came from foster care too, so I don’t know your circumstances but I do have some idea of what gets a girl phoning from a train station, looking for a same day job. If you play straight with us, we’ll do the same with you, we don’t judge people.’ Estelle felt her eyes fill with tears and quickly wiped them away with the back of her hand. Sandy pretended not to notice and continued to dish up the dinner. She’s a heartbreaker, Sandy thought to herself as she considered the beautiful waif like girl sat at her table. Her huge blue eyes currently brimming with tears filled her pixy face. She hoped her boys wouldn’t get hurt, yet at the same time she was drawn to their mysterious new employee.
The boys came rushing back in just as the food arrived on the table. Following them was a small older man, Estelle guessed he was about sixty, behind him came two young blonde twin girls about six years old, wearing matching blue jodhpurs and pink unicorn t- shirts. Estelle got up from the table as they all came towards her, ‘Hi’ she said nervously, the man came towards her with out stretched hands. Estelle put out a hand to shake his and found it enclosed in both his large hands. ‘Welcome, I’m Jack and this rabble is my family’ he said in a broad Yorkshire accent. He had a soft friendly voice which made Estelle feel safe, she smiled,’ Hello, sir, I’m Estelle, I promise to work really hard’ she said all of a rush. Jack boomed with laughter,’ You’ll be the first buggar that does,’ just then one of the small blonde girls pulled her sleeve,’ I’m Alicia and she’s Gabrielle,’ she said importantly. ‘It’s very nice to meet you both,’ Estelle smiled at the two identically beautiful, little girls. She’d never seen such a beautiful family in her whole life. ‘Well now all the introductions are done can we eat, before its cold?’ Sandy interrupted; soon everyone was passing dishes and complementing her on the wonderful meal. Estelle let the dinner chat wash over her. The relief at such a warm welcome had made her really tired, she’d be glad when it was bedtime. Sandy must have noticed her drooping eyes, she suddenly announced,’ that’s enough; let me show you to your room, we’ll do the tour tomorrow.’ Estelle gratefully left the table and followed her through a maze of rooms to a small annexe on the back of the house. ‘This is your part of the house, you’re welcome to eat all your meals with us or I’ll stock up your freezer so you can cook yourself. Have a think about it and let me know’ Sandy handed her a key, ‘Goodnight’ she walked off leaving Estelle stood in the entrance to her own kitchen. Her eyes filled with tears again as a sense of gratefulness overwhelmed her. She’d never expected all this. I’m going to be the best employee ever she promised herself, although at the back of her mind she wasn’t really planning to stay. Having got this far she felt she owed it to herself to chase her dreams.
After a quick exploration, Estelle discovered the annexe consisted of a small green kitchen, an equally green living room with television and a bright yellow bedroom with en suite bathroom. She twirled herself round in a happy circle. She’d never had a safe place of her own before, even her bedroom at Margi’s had been shared with a never ending run of different working pupils. None had stayed very long so it had always felt like sharing with strangers. Exhaustion hit her again and she headed for the bedroom. Her bags were laid up against the foot of the bed. For a minute she contemplated unpacking, then pulled off her boots and trousers and climbed into bed still in her t-shirt and underwear. As soon as her head hit the pillow she was sound asleep.
All over the house Estelle was under discussion, Alicia and Gabrielle were looking at a fairytale book arguing over which princess she most looked like. ‘I think she’s Snow White mum,’ insisted Gabrielle ‘What does that make us? The dwarfs?’ laughed their mother. ‘I’d like to be a dwarf, hi ho hi ho,’ Sandy ticked Alicia before she could get started with her song or they’d never go to sleep. ‘Come on girls, time for sleep, you’ve got school tomorrow.’ ‘Will she still be here when we get home?’ asked Alicia,’ ‘I’m sure she will,’ laughed their mother, ‘we’ve never run staff off that fast.’
Over in the study, Jack had been lecturing his sons on his new employee. He’d had the same feeling as Sandy when he saw her and he didn’t want his family broken up over a girl. Both brothers had denied an interest and Marc had left to go on a date in Whitby with the neighbouring farmer’s daughter.