Dispatches

Well, a week of pre-season prep is flying by at warp speed, leaving us all a bit shell shocked, wind burnt and bogglingly exhausted, dehydrated and giddy. It’s 4;30 a.m and I’m wide awake which bodes well for the next 2 months of 4 am start times (followed by another 2 months of early rising in the Okanagan). The familiar sound of the generator running soothes me through the night- the fridges on the trailer and the kitchen bus will be getting cold in anticipation of the arrival of our giant Sysco order this afternoon.

We’re living out of our vehicles and a job site trailer parked on a wicked angle at the shop, where we at least have hydro this year. After last season’s -13 with wind chill temps over the first week, this 22 degree weather makes me feel spoiled. Somebody’s always brewing coffee on a camp stove and we are back to pissing outside incessantly and driving to the Husky to shit and shower. You can hear them everywhere we go. “The treeplanters are back,” they say, as we trudge in to buy groceries and beer and gas. Soon we’ll be followed by close to a hundred planters.

Setting up a bush kitchen from scratch is no easy feat. The week has been pretty full with getting the bus ready after she sat in storage outdoors all winter. We’ve been checking propane and water and fixing cupboards and washing every dish after the mice made their home in the cupboards with leftover toilet paper. The tasks are never ending, although the list at the moment is quite manageable. Encouraging, after the full-on, heads down charge that was necessary to tackle the immensity of the whole project.

Equipping the pantry and meal planning for the first week took two full days of obsessive list making, poring over copies of the Sysco catalog. Everything from spices and baking supplies to toilet paper and ground beef has to be considered. The order, a two page affair, took a solid thirty minutes to phone in to our rep, who is excellent at helping us with the most cost effective products for our needs. Having done this last year makes it immensely easier for me to handle now, knowing quantities that will be needed and preferable products and what a shift will typically look like. We are meeting industry standard this year with 4&1 shifts although the first will be a 5&1, followed by the inaugural HoJo/Companion night off. Look out, Hearst!

Walking back from La Companion a few nights ago, I caught a glimpse of flickering green in the sky, followed by the briefest moment of pink. It was so brief I could have imagined it but when I got back to the shop everyone was outside watching the sky and the aurora borealis that graced us this far south, for, as north as Hearst may seem, Canada still stretches on seemingly indefinitely to the north. I have finally tricked somebody into coming up here with me and after the twelve hour drive and the warnings of snow and bugs and shittiness, the spectre almost makes it worthwhile.

‘I thought you must have been exxagerating at least a little bit when you talked about treeplant,’ he says. ‘But now that I’m here and I hear everybody’s stories, I realize you weren’t. Even a little bit. Actually, you might have underplayed it.’

Looking forward to bringing you another season of unbelievable stories. Bex out.

Lads

Spumante foams along the neck of the bottle and flecks our clothes
as the race-worn spittle horses foamed at the iron bits and slathered,

drunk feet dangle from the trunks of Audis that speed celebratory up Chalk Lane
remember being suspended above the churn of steel shod hooves at speed.

Languid ponies loose in paddocks on the Downs serve to reenact the starting line-up,
the day’s winners urged on to glory in a hundred different retold versions.

Bar of Silver

There are moments that come and go, flitting so quickly in and out of existence that they’re hardly substantial, brief little silver linings. We’ll remember them in a rocking chair in a nursing home somewhere, feeble and crippled, living them out over and over again.  The names of horses long since consecrated to the ground, the flash of a rainbow-bright pheasant in cedars, wind-chapped hands in December and a kiss from the lips of the chapped-hand man.

The racehorses come to us with names ranging from regal to outright absurd. Royal Rackeen, Twice on Sunday, Cashflow Expected, who never won a dime. Bar of Silver was a lean little chestnut with bright chrome stockings and a blaze, belonging to a meek, eccentric woman who would have done better with a steady cob type thing that would have plodded along the Downs trails happily. A.G, as she named him, after the periodic table of elements symbol for ‘silver’, had been acquired from a polo string. “The perfect gentleman,” the seller assured her, and while he was a polite, kind gelding, he was still all Thoroughbred, young, quick on his feet and inclined toward a bit of speediness.
I’d hack out with A.G and his owner every day, mounted on one of the full liveried horses and ponies I had the pleasure of exercising. Ginnie, one of my favorites, a highly strung colored mare with a naughty streak, Milton, a little Welsh section C named after the famous show jumper, Lucero, an Andalusian from Spain who took me speedily down the sand gallops with the bit in his teeth and lost stirrups more times than I can count, leisurely Val, the big fleabitten gray with navicular, or one of my personal favorites, Arnie, a chubby Appaloosa with a stand-up broom mane and a neck that disappeared out from under you when he put his head down at the canter. If I wasn’t riding out with her, I was riding A.G for her, deeply flattered to be trusted with the precious little horse.

One of the yard lasses who had worked there just before I arrived, a sullen Polish girl, had taken to galloping him in the same spot on the Downs every time she rode him out, conditioning him to break into an open gallop at the start of the Farm. Racehorses are easily mentally conditioned- if you begin to gallop at the same spot every day, that spot takes on the dimensions of the starting gate and with his owner on board, he would merrily shake his head and surge ahead, her flopping like a frightened ragdoll, losing stirrups and keeling stiffly to one side, hauling on his mouth until he either stopped or she fell. As a result, the horse suffered greatly, as we were no longer allowed to take him out and stretch his legs with a good gallop anywhere on the Downs, lest he take it into his little Thoroughbred brain to try the same with his owner on board.

One day, the big boss away with the headgirl at dressage at Pachesham, we drew our rides for the day, James assigning me my secret favorite, A.G, he taking a large and obstinate warmblood who could turn himself inside out bucking, and the working student on a big, able bodied colored cob who had to be coerced into moving at faster than a plod.

The blackberries were out along the hedgerows and we ate them on our ride along the bridlepath to the downs, scattering rabbit kits beneath the horses hooves. There’d been a stretch of unbelievable weather in the south of England and the sky was blue and cloudless, the ground was dry and fast and the horses were fresh and pleased to be out for a hack. James, the defacto leader in the absence of the big boss, led us at a brisk trot along the sand gallops, and while the horses were fresh, they were well behaved, moving along quickly but obediently. I followed his instruction to push A.G up into the bit and suddenly found myself moving along in the most beautiful, floating collected trot, the red gelding framing up and carrying himself almost imperiously, pridefully. Still moving along at a quick trot, James calls out, “We’ll just go for a quick canter up the hill then, shall we?”

The Downs, in addition to the famous racetrack and the miles and miles of sand gallops, features woodlands with bridle-paths, and acres of undulating hills that look out over the English countryside. From one viewpoint, you can see all the way to London, the London Eye on the South Bank evident on the horizon. There is one hill smack in the center that has a long, gradual incline that we often used for conditioning, going for a long, slow canter up the verdant greenery until, upon cresting, an excellent view of the grandstand and the track comes into view. I had breezed a good many horses up that hill, but nobody at all was supposed to take A.G out beyond a trot, lest they lose control of him, or, worse, his owner did when he took it upon himself to go for a run at a later date. “It’s just like a little picnic,” James called back, breaking Dickie into a shambling canter. “Sit back and relax!”

And in a heartbeat, A.G eased into a quick, controlled canter. I could hear my blood rushing in my head, as, seamlessly, I eased into jockey position. The line between my hands and the bit became electric and supple, the quiet contact established, hands moving in stereo with the muscular pitch and yaw of the canter that was easing toward a gallop. My body was out of the saddle, perched over the tiny and constantly shifting center of gravity of the galloping horse below me, weight balanced entirely on the ball of my foot that rested along the thin strip of metal stirrup. My weight sunk into my heels and there I balanced above the surge of muscle and blood and flesh and will that is a galloping horse. James glanced back over his shoulder and laughed out loud at the joy evident in my face, the perfect harmonious mechanical wonder of a Thoroughbred doing what it loves to do, the fat cob galloping up the hill behind us and trying to keep up, and as we crested the hill and settled our bums back into our saddles, our horses came right back to a collected trot without argument.

I dream of this, sometimes; the moment where, without asking, the horse knew my mind, and the noise of the world became hoofbeats and blood and the breathing of horses, as we stole a gallop on a day without rain.

Come down tae the pub, or else you’re fired.

I dropped out of high-school halfway through the eleventh grade to fly to England and work exercise riding horses and mucking stalls, living on-site in an apartment that was a part of the stable block. Going down to the pub is probably the national past-time in the United Kingdom, and in Epsom, they were prolific. The White Horse, with an out of tune piano and a grubby stretch of bar, one of my favorites. The Queen’s Head, where the only memory I have is being extremely, extremely drunk, playing pool with a group of locals and having to return shamefaced the next day to retrieve a top I’d left behind in the fray. The Albion, Irish Paul’s old haunt and where we met a group of perpetually drunk WWII vets who drag us over hedges and bridlepaths to see Victoria Day fireworks. I used to carry a little stuffed zebra as a purse. “Oi, Freddy!” the bleary eyed man sitting next to me exclaims to the bar keep. “Did you know Canadians skin zebras and use them as wee purses?” The Amato, my favorite for Sunday roasts and weird pull-chain toilets. And, just a hop and a skip over in Walton-on-The-Hill, The Chequers.

I still had a sense of decorum at sixteen. “Oh no, going out to drink with my boss is simply not appropriate,” I must have thought at one point. Hahaha. My sweet summer child. I’m invited out multiple times and elect, instead, to sit in front of the tellie watching BBC 4, hours old horse-races and episodes of Holly Oaks (which sucks you right fucking in, no matter how highbrow you like to imagine yourself) until eventually, I am issued the ultimatum, of “Come down tae the pub, or else you’re fired,” and I go, and a beast is unleashed.

A few pub visits later, we find ourselves at quiz night at The Chequers, still in our riding boots and chaffy half chaps and dirt stained hands, guzzling cheap rose wine and badly answering trivia questions. “What has recently increased from £5,25 to £5,75?” Excitedly, we bump heads, writing down our answer. “Cigarettes! A pack of cigarettes!” The answer is ‘minimum wage’, something we should probably be aware of, since that is what we are earning during our 10 hour a day, six days a week of shovelling horse shit and galloping horses out over Epsom Downs. A new employee shows up, a Prince William look alike with a larger than life personality, and more rose is consumed. The big boss invites us back over to her house for spaghetti bolognese and I head up to the bar to get one more drink before we go. Unfortunately, there’s a minimum for debit, so I end up purchasing two half liters of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and pounding them in quick succession before departing the gorgeous garden at Chequers.

Sixteen, drunk, full of rose, stout and with a mouthful of spaghetti bolognese, seated beside my new coworker who I am just meeting for the first time, I projectile vomit across my boss’s bougie living room and dash for the bathroom, where I spend maybe the next hour with my head in the toilet, moaning.

“Canadians do everything so politely!” she exclaims, coming in to check on me, leaving a glass of water on the side of the tub. “They even vomit politely!” Later it becomes apparent that my hi jinx are not the epitome of what she has seen; one of my senior coworkers is spotted at a party a few weeks later pissing in the garden and passed out face down in the rose bushes, a high-heeled foot with her thong around her ankles hanging out into the garden where the night continues on around her.

The morning after the unfortunate rose/stout/bolognese incident, we wake up at the yard and head out to work, heads pounding, stale breath, bleary eyed, to participate in a jumping clinic with a relatively famous clinician, a former Household Calvary instructor and rider and prevalent name within the British show jumping world. We sit clad in our jods and half chaps along the side of the menage, heads in hands, and each ride our individual clinic with great success, piloting around 1000 pound flight animals over courses of fences with pounding headaches. As he rides out, the William look-alike says confidentially, “I think I’m still drunk.” I leg-up onto a blue-eyed pony and think I may be, as well.

Growing up Theater

There are years and years of theater that have run into one sort of amorphous blob in my memory, a period where my mom and I were so involved in the local community theater that we had involvement in every single production for over two seasons straight. After getting sick of spending hours doing homework while rehearsals for “Of Mice and Men” went on, or taking the bus from school to the theater to work as an assistant stage manager on children’s Christmas shows, I was a latchkey kid who lived off of T.V dinners while mom hung lights and built sets.

When you’re already a geeky, weird fat kid, the theater can be either a blessing or a curse.  It was a humble community theater in an old factory in the Ward in Guelph, full of minor (and not so minor) dramas, an eclectic cast of characters, a full bill of plays ranging from the typical Arthur Millers to the more obscure to the downright absurd from our in-house playwrights to the Christmas pantomimes that I will loathe for the rest of my life.  We had a real skeleton on loan from the University of Guelph once, for a production of ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Solution’. Cue doing homework in between laying down spiking tape or sitting in the empty auditorium during rehearsals. Somewhere in this time is where I gained my affinity for queer, over the top parties, involving nudity, tarot cards, bicycles, fire, glitter and games of hide and seek. Here too, the obscure literary references and the flair for the dramatic and the need to be the loudest, weirdest and funniest in a room.

Shakespeare roles as written for Samuel L. Jackson.

“Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war… motherfucker.”

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou? Motherfucker.”

It’s here that we howl over Richard the Third, and here that sets my expectations for quality, highbrow, bawdy humor.


Once, as a teenager, I wake up in our house, downtown Guelph, and pick my way over sleeping musicians in the living room to gather my bag and shoes for school. Somebody is still clutching drumsticks. A neighbor tells me, “You and your mom should really do ‘shrooms together,” before retreating into his home for months on end, his soul apparently consumed by a succubus masquerading as a female temptress. A house bong belonging to our roommate lives in the pantry on a shelf beneath the baking supplies. One of my piano teacher’s friends is forever offering me and mine pot infused chocolate chip cookies. The first time we get drunk, we cross the road to the river and rent a canoe and trawl up and down the Speed River for hours, narrowly avoiding disaster thanks only to the summer dry shallowness of the waters.


There’s a boy a couple of years older than me sitting on our porch. His phone is ringing and he answers. “No, mom, I’m not drinking,” he says, truthfully, although he has just set the large house bong down beside the damp, sorta mouldy porch couch that he’s seated upon with a few other members of our theater troupe. He hangs up on the call with his mom and pops a Doritos in his mouth, conspiratorially whispering “Motherfuckin’ snakes on a motherfuckin’ Doritos plane…”

 


 

Backstage for a production of Lost in Yonkers, a lesser known play rather than one of the Norm Foster’s or Arthur Miller’s, I watch in horror as my tenth grade coding teacher, who is also the mother of one of the young actors, reaches into the back of his pants and pulls the waistband out, exclaiming, “Campbell, are ye wearing clean underwear!?”

It is not the first or the last ‘teacher’ crossover that occurs. I also see my eighth grade history teacher star in a dramatic production of one acts, which included full frontal nudity and a variety of compromising positions, accents and catchphrases.


 

Perhaps not least of all, I recall with alarming clarity, closing night parties, one in which somebody rode a bicycle over the edge of the stage in the dark, early morning hours in which bad decisions are made, and another in which a young man, leaning over a Oujia board with a look of disbelief in his eyes, lit the lapel of his collared shirt on fire and declared it a sign from the spirit world not to continue to fuck around.

 

Bridges

Shakily, we try out familiar words,

having burnt the bridges that once carried speech

from the island of one man to another.

I knew another language once,

how to tell a love story with my thumb on a bicep

how to say goodbye for now

by not looking back.

I have seen you imagined in your old age
having surmounted everything in between troubled youth
and trembling hands, the memories of a young man’s strength.
When I meet you in these fields again, I know
we will both be young
and fierce, and wild,
having finally cast off this pall of sadness that we’ve needlessly carried
for so damn long.
So I taught you, with a well-aimed rocks glass
that shattered along with whatever lies
I’d told myself about happiness,
how to spit in their faces
and tell them to fuck off, even as they twisted
the knife deeper.