Each week comprises of (I’m using a calculator and still my tongue pokes out of corner of mouth in concentration) 168 hours, of which 15 of them are Dulcie-free. Put like that, it doesn’t seem much but at the start of half term, it seemed to be a yawning mass of extra minutes that must be filled to the satisfaction of both Dulcie and Himself the Elf, without the house descending into mindless squalor. “What are we doing today?” Dulcie would ask at breakfast. “Is this a preschool day or a weekend?” Neither, I would think, sometimes quite desperately. And good question, what are we going to do today? But the days have whizzed by, with Halloween celebrated, some cold time in the playground endured and a search for a particular item at the library all punctuated by the gentle narrative of Himself the Elf having a burst ear drum and a reaction to his penicillin. There have been rivers of snot from both children, which Dulcie can sometimes wipe for herself and Himself the Elf never can. My jeans look as though a colony of slugs has been crawling all over them. We have a large stash of baked good including cup cakes and jam tarts, and no-one really seems to want to eat them. Is this connected to the snot of the chef? Probably.
I think the main thing I have become used to in the six short weeks that I have not looked after both children full time, is the level of noise. Dulcie speaks all day long. From just before she opens her green eyes in the morning when her voice rises from a barely audible croak to a shout in about ten words, until she is sloppily talking round her thumb as she drifts off at night. For fifteen hours a week, I enjoy and appreciate the range of sounds Himself the Elf produces, yet over half term, these get lost in her endless narratives, often in her American accent, and submerged under her clatter of ponies and fairies and princesses, all fleeing or running away or navigating some crisis about a lost ballgown and midsummer wedding. It seems perfectly apt that after my childhood adoration of Anne of Green Gables, my adult life will be subdued by the din of a small redheaded girl who cannot stop talking.
As he goes about his strange business, Himself the Elf breathes heavily to denote his interest and satisfaction. He pats the sofa as he moves around the room chuntering and scratching his lethal nails on the fabrics he encounters, or he clicks his tongue as he puzzles how to remove an LP from the sleeve, or smacks his lips as he eats the post out of the letter box. Often he is loud, but his range of quiet noises have revealed his personality to be more than anything else in the time we are alone together. And then, when he has a nap and Dulcie is at preschool – hark! Silence.
I fancy a quick slice of silence, but the best I’m going to get is quiet punctuated by my own dulcet tone as I read to them. It needs to be a longish book and it needs to have the novelty factor for me. Thankfully, my brother has supplied the perfect candidate.
The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble
This was a completely new one for me, both the author and the book. Based on a retold version of a Native American legend, this story has the kind of heroine I like (quiet – she literally doesn’t say a word all story – and resilient and brave) but also appeals to Dulcie (good with horses, has a wild adventure, has long hair) without needing a pink frock or any prince. This girl is special; she has an affinity with the horses of the tribe, but one day after a stampede caused by a storm, she is carried away by the horses and meets a very impressive stallion. After a couple of years of living with the wild horses, in which she seems perfectly content, a couple of hunters from her village find her and manage to take her home, in spite of the stallion doing his absolute best to prevent her being captured. But pretty soon everyone realises that she’s not happy and wants to run free with the horses, so off she goes. No-one asks any questions about her schooling, or raises any concerns about her immunisation schedule or her chances of gaining good qualifications that will open doors for her or how she might get into a grammar school, or indeed, even wonder if her diet will be adequate, because she is a Native American and not middle-class English and proposing to live in the New Forest with the ponies. No, off she merrily trots (quite literally) after an exchange with the wild horses, where they are given a) the girl b) some blankets and decorated saddles and c) some ribbons for their tails, and in exchange, they give the tribe a colt, and everyone seems pretty pleased with the deal. And after a few years, the girl turns into wild horse herself, so it seems perfectly reasonable that no-one particularly batted an eyelid about the suitability of living with a bunch of equines rather than her actual family.
Along with the tale being absolutely refreshingly unlike anything I have ever read (I have a huge Native American legends shaped gap in my reading, I must admit, and consequently so do my children, but I was brought up in rural England so this isn’t massively surprising) the illustrations are amazing. They are super, super stylish and amazingly detailed. The landscape around the girl is vast and varied, teeming with birds, animals and flowers, all under an ever-changing sky. The palette is earthy and vital, and the girl’s face is never pictured so she remains a fascinating cipher. The final page, where she has turned into a horse, and is shown in symmetry with the stallion, is immense and satisfying as all nature is pictured in harmony – animals entwined in embraces, the horses surrounded by an explosion of the sun’s rays, as birds surge upwards. It is life-affirming and powerful.
And after I ruminate briefly at the conclusion of the story, and in the brief second that Dulcie silently considers what we have read and Himself the Elf is occupied in trying to get with me into the jumper I’m wearing, I find myself with a longing to read Jilly Cooper’s Riders and I realise I have lowered the tone all by myself. “Time to play horses,” orders Dulcie. “But we must be careful we don’t turn into them.”