I grew up in a pebble-dashed Victorian ex-rectory, built in the 1890s as a holiday home for a rich businessman and then sold on to the only church on the Island. Run down when we moved in. Surrounded by solitary conker trees, sycamores, and old, yellowing laburnums – “poisonous…..don’t eat the seeds.” The garden was bordered on two sides by roses. Out back there was an old Anderson shelter, overgrown with something green and tangly. I never saw the inside of it. Never wanted to.
The house was a couple of hundred meters from the beach. A gently sloping road led down to a sea-grass set of small dunes and onto a sandy beach where large areas of shingle and shells piled high against the long wooden tide breaks. The wood shone with slimy algae-green age after a high tide and became grey as stone during a low tide when the wind was strong or the sun beat down.
At low tide, the mud flats led the unwary out for a hundred meters; past ancient oyster beds and the carcass-like ribs of rotting fishing boats. Patches of the old London clay broke through the fine estuary mud in brown bands. Sea birds with long bills and harsh piping cries dragged and skitted up and down a constantly moving shoreline.
It was in the mud, one summer afternoon, that I found it.
A couple of us had been playing on the mud flats – confident that we knew where the deep stuff was, and the direction of the tide. It had been fun. We’d been throwing mud at each other in large handfuls and prodding the silty patches for oysters with thin bamboo canes. We hadn’t found any but it was good to be free of the house and of the anger.
The horse skull had been buried in a foot or two of mud but we dug it out in twenty minutes. I’d felt it under my foot as we were playing. Treasure. Gold. Large as Jack’s go-cart. It just had to be something important. There it sat in the late afternoon sun, large sockets still full of grey silt, staring up at us from beside the water-filled grave it had gotten stuck in a hundred years past. A macabre hunk of dirty white booty. An awesome piece of something huge and scary.
We decided a pirate had ridden it out to his ship, cutting it loose when it became encased in the magnetic brown ooze and his shipmates couldn’t wait for the next tide. He’d sailed off to capture jewels in India, Africa, and to kiss beautiful women….making them all have babies by weeing on their bellies. Somehow. We were certain. But the horse was left to drown in the upcoming swell of the River Blackwater, to gently sway and rot in the murky water. Crabs picked its flesh, sharks too, though none of us had actually seen one, until the bones sunk down into the mud.
I wondered if we should leave a marker – a gravestone of sorts – out of reverence for what was essentially a really important and brave animal. But we couldn’t find anything that would be big enough, or wouldn’t float away. We carried the skull to the waters edge and splashed the salt water onto the place where its nose should have been. Sharp edges and holes. Too many holes, surely, for just two eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth. What were they all for? Bullet holes? Pirate horses would have to have been involved with dangerous times, when golden-haired ladies got spirited away on dark and foggy nights.
It took us a good half an hour for the three of us to carry the skull to my house. We washed it in the garden but nobody could bring themselves to reach right inside the great cavity of its long head. I gouged out the mud from the huge eye sockets and left it on the grass beneath my bedroom window. There it sat, waiting for night and for the chance for the ghosts of the past to do some dry land haunting for a change. But horse ghosts didn’t exist; least not without a rider, and this horse’s rider was a long, long way away from my island. His pirate spirit was rattling its cutlass somewhere where it never snowed and where the people were always happy. Like France maybe?
That night I woke in the early hours in my big creaking old house. I put on the nightlight and wondered what I’d see if I dared to look. The fireplace loomed its gaping mouth at me and the floorboards groaned as I tip-toed across them towards the curtains. This was a night where things moved around without touching them. Far off, canons boomed and a cat-o-nine-tails cracked on a bloodied back. I decided not to risk it. Nobody needed to see a phantom steed – fiery red eyes rearing a full twenty feet to my window and looking in past the drawings of ships and sad faces on my tiny desk. More than that, my father would fly into another rage if it woke him. More terror. Worse fear than any ghost could conjure in me. No. The skull could wait. I climbed back into bed and stared at the ceiling. Far out in the bay a square-rigged ship turned back away from the Island and out to sea.
I wished I was on it.