Eleven years ago...
A seventeen-year-old boy with green eyes and soft light brown hair glanced up with a bemused expression on his good-looking face.
He sighed, shoved his ipod in the secret drawer of a small wooden box sitting on the table, pushed the box under his kingsize bed and stood up with a stretch.
"DARRELL! Where are you!" demanded a posh-toned, nasal-sounding voice.
"I'm coming, Mother!" the boy called back. He glanced at himself in a small mirror on the back of the door, then grasped the handle in his pale hand and opening the door with no traces of frustration.
"There you are, Darrell! We are late," said the posh voice as the boy came down the great staircase, taking care to stand on the wood at the banister rather than on the red carpet rolling down the centre.
"Sorry, Mother," he said, bowing his head.
"And don't shout at me down the stairs. It is terrible manners, my boy."
The boy didn't even bother to point out that if he had been shouting down the stairs, she had been yelling up them. He merely followed his mother out of the tall doors, down the cold stone steps and into the sleek black Rolls Royce that was waiting for them on the gravel.
The woman was extremely overdressed, wearing a long navy-blue coat lined with puffy grey animal fur, a pink designer scarf and a fashionable navy-blue hat with a large pink feather. Short blonde hair from under the hat framed a thin pinched face and she wore a considerable excess of dark lipstick and blusher.
The boy wore jodpurs and boots, and in his lap he held a pair of gloves, a riding whip and a hard black riding hat. He was distant and sombre as the car moved away from the house, around the big fountain and out through the huge iron gates guarding the great house from jealous eyes, and yet emphasising its grandeur with every black spear of the ensuing fence.
"Why must I stay home and learn politics while everyone my age goes to University?" he asked after several minutes of no sounds but the throbbing of the car.
"Darrell! How dare you question our goodness to you in sending you every day to law school in order to learn from the greatest politicians of our time?" scolded the posh lady. "You have no idea how much it is costing us to keep you there."
"I know, but I'm no good at politics," said the boy. "I want to go to University and study languages. That's all I want to do."
The lady shot him a look of venom.
"Why do I have to stay here and go to law school?" pleaded the boy.
"You know why. Because one day when your father retires you will become the Mayor of the city, as your grandfather and your grandfather's father and your grandfather's father's father was. And when your father comes to the end of his life on earth, you will ascend to the baronetcy and become Sir Darrell. No son of mine goes to University to study a subject that will help him earn his living."
"That's all snobbish and oldfashioned now," protested the boy in despair.
"Darrell! How many times have I told you not to answer back. That is twice this week! And this is no place to be discussing such a delicate subject for McDonnell and the whole world to hear. I don't want another word about University."
The boy subsided. He didn't want the chauffeur O'Donnell, one of his friends in his lonely misunderstood world, to hear him losing a battle with his mother. But that reproof about answering back he knew to be unjust. He knew himself to be a quiet and shy boy, courtesy of his upbringing, may it forever be damned, lacking in confidence, and lacking in the fire which called him to answer back. He was a person who did not often get frustrated, who did not need time to let his feelings out, who bore the bullying with a courage truly admirable, but seldom recognised. Having answered back twice in a week he was sure would be a great feat for a normal teenage boy, judging by the way the young apprentices at the law school talked.
He had never been allowed to do anything. Purple had always been his favourite colour, and when another set of silk pyjamas the colour of algae had come to his possession at Christmas he had rebelled and been sentenced to his bedroom with his entire wardrobe locked up. But he became so embarrassed, even at six, and in his bedroom only, that he had been forced to submit to the pyjamas after just six days. At eleven, he had kicked up an enormous fuss about not being allowed to go to a normal high school, and the result had been a master for six months teaching him maths, science and Latin all day every day, and it had been so boring that he soon gave in and went to the posh college he had been enrolled into. In going through a goth stage at fifteen in the usual teenage attempt to gain attention, he resorted to wearing dark eyeliner; he had been banished to his bedroom until he could get wash it off, and after three days had been too hungry to keep it up. He had been broken so many times, his childhood had been stolen from him. So our Daz Harrington was no normal teenage boy.
He stayed silent for the rest of the journey, and was unresentful by the time the Rolls Royce drew up at the gate to a long green field in the countryside. O'Donnell held the door open for the mayor's wife, and she surveyed it with dismay and disgust.
"Oh!" cried Lady Guinevere, her face as sour as a cow's backside. "Must I walk through this field?"
"No, Mother. There is another entrance up the road, where the horse trailers go in. There is a track up there, but it's very muddy. You'd be better walking through the field," offered the boy, who, by the way, liked to call himself Daz in his dreams.
"Must I walk? If the horse trailers go up this track, why can O'Donnell not? O'Donnell! We are going up the road to this track."
Daz disdained to 'answer back', but when O'Donnell calmly announced that the car would get very muddy along the track, Guinevere turned on her son.
"Why did you not tell me that the car would get muddy? Be more specific, boy. Keep going, O'Donnell. You will just have to clean the car. I am sure that will not be such a hardship. These are new boots, handmade in Persia, and I suspect much more difficult to clean than the car."
The car squelched and slid, and the mud spattered the windows, but O'Donnell was a good driver, and he persevered to get his moody mistress to the haven of mudless safety he prayed was waiting for them at the other end of the track.
And so he did, and Lady Guinevere stepped out onto the cobbles without a word of thanks, betraying only a face of utter revulsion as she eyed the surface for unevenness and pitholes.
The fact was, Lady Guinevere judged the Harrington Senior Horse Race every year, and every year she handed the trophy to her son Darrell Harrington. Every year the event was held at a different stable and this year it was being hosted by the Grange Stables, the nicest of them all, Daz always thought.
Grange Village, as you know, consists of two long streets built upon a ledge on the West-South side and a gradual slope on the North-East side. Behind the houses in Grange to the West are a line of white wicker gates set in tall hedges, linked by a long path going along, and then down with a sharp u-turn, down down the hill to the bottom, where the dusty track that hugs the curve of the hill is joined to the main road. On the other side of the track is a low slate wall, and behind it Grange Wood, a broad area of thick woodland carpeting a further slope down into the hollow. There it gave way to ploughed fields, and finally, a mile or two later, to the winking blue sea down below the white cliffs. Further North the cliffs mellowed to crystalline beaches where an army of the City of Harrington's best hotels stood to attention at the shore, but all this was invisible to the discontented woman and the resigned boy as they stood on the cobbles.
Daz made his way straight to the stables, having rolled his eyes at O'Donnell, who was interviewing the damage done to the car paint with an element of despair.
Snowdrop, his tall white mare, was waiting for him in the end stable, and he spent a few moments talking to her and assuring himself of her wellbeing before he could think about anything else.
As he turned round to look for the bag of carrots he had brought the previous day, Daz was greeted with the sight of a magnificent black stallion strutting across the yard to the stable next to his. He resisted the temptation to gape as the stallion's rider waved in some direction. The rider was a girl!
Daz watched in fascination as an assistant came over to find a riding block for the girl to dismount. Daz could see that she had quite short legs, but was wonderfully pretty in a quietly brilliant way, with dark layered hair and sapphire-blue eyes sparkling with life and sweetness and intelligence.
Then he heard a crash, a loud whinny, and stepped back as the rider rose into the air on the stallion's back as it reared up on its back legs. Daz stood frozen in horror as the spectacle greeted his eyes, the stallion's black mane streaming down and the mighty hooves pawing the air as if for support. But the rider rallied valiantly, and with careful handling of the reins, even in such danger, the horse was brought slowly down back onto four legs, and the rider was clapping its flanks and stroking its nose from her perch.
It was over in a few seconds, but it was the most excitement Daz had ever had, and he couldn't help grinning widely in admiration and exhilaration for the stallion and the girl.
"Don't worry, Rocky," the girl was saying. "Don't be such a touchy monster. You're way too sensitive. Just don't trip over a bucket next time, Sapphire, but you know what he's like. Won't have anyone else touch him, will you, Romeo? Rocky! Snap out of that! Being snooty with me won't get you anywhere, and you have to win a race for me in half an hour! We have to beat the mayoress's son, after she called you a smelly devil out loud. Apparently he wins the race every year, but this year he'll never see us coming, will he, Romeo?"
Daz just stood gawping like a peasant, as his mother would not have stopped to tell him, and it was that moment that the girl on the horse caught his gaze. They both went bright pink, and for at least thirty seconds the awkward silence was as crooked as a line of gravestones.
"S-sorry," muttered Daz, looking down and backing away.
"No, it's okay. I should be saying sorry really," said the girl. "You are the mayor's son, aren't you?"
"Y-yes," replied Daz. He paused. "Sorry about my mother."
"It's fine. I didn't mind at all." There was another hesitation. "See you for the race, then."
"And I bet I beat you," the girl said with a slight giggle. "Don't worry, I'm joking."
"I hope you do," Daz said quietly. He would enjoy the look on his mother's face if she realised she had to shake hands with a 'mere commoner', hand 'my son's trophy' to a 'mere commoner', and after all that boasting to the people she called her 'friends in politics'.
The girl dismounted and began to groom Rocky or Romeo, whichever it was. Then she turned round again. "I'm Vi, by the way," she said. "If you cared at all."
"Oh, yes," Daz was eager. He didn't have many friends. He was a remote person, used to being bullied by his parents, and had not fit in very well with the apprentices at the law school. His best friend had been for many years his cousin, a boy several years younger than him but another keen horse enthusiast. "I'm Daz."
"Daz? Is that what they call you?" said Vi.
Daz went pink again. "No," he said. "It's what I'd like them to call me."
"Oh," said Vi with a voice ebbing with understanding sympathy. "You...aren't much like your parents, are you?"
"I don't like to think so," said Daz. "I want to go to University and study French and German, for one thing."
"Really? So do I! I want to go to Harrington University," Vi was incredulous. "I think we're the same age. Maybe I'll see you there."
"Maybe," Daz agreed. He stood for a second. Then his thoughts of the morning came pouring out. "I'm not allowed. I have to stay home and learn politics and be a baronet. And it's so old-fashioned and boring. I wish I'd been born into a normal family."
Vi smiled at him, and he felt his heart warming up. "I'm sorry," she said. "But you're a year away from it. What about you apply next year without your parents knowing? You just have to get the courage to do it. I'm here without my parents knowing. I'm meant to be in school."
Daz smiled wryly. "I don't have much courage. I've never told anyone even that much. I don't usually say so much at all."
"Neither," said Vi. "I'm quite a shy person. But somehow I feel like I can talk to you without feeling shy. I think we have a mutual understanding."
And Daz, with these warm words echoing in his ears, decided to do as she suggested and apply for Harrington University the following year. He could only be turned down. And if the worst came to the worst, he could run away to University. It would cause too much publicity to remove him after that. He would find the courage, stop being the soft person he had been moulded into up till now, and square for the future.
Vi proceeded to win the race on her magnificent black stallion, and Daz had the amusement of watching Lady Guinevere look down her nose at the short 'common' girl and give her 'my son's trophy', calling her 'Violet' and disdaining to meet her eyes.
The day needed only one thing to fulfil Daz completely, and he got it. As his mother was gathering her skirts to step back into the Rolls Royce after the presentations, she had the indignity of tripping on a jutting cobblestone and falling headfirst over the back seat of the car, her long coat and precious Persian boots dangling in the mud beneath the car with wonderful accuracy. The 'commoners' were too polite to snigger, but Daz could not suppress a secret smile of glee, and he got a number of murderous looks from his mother in the car on the way home.
In fact, that smile and the fact that he had lost the horse race ensured that Lady Guinevere refused to speak to her son for a week, but Daz did not mind. Anything for the wonderful day he had passed. He had a new friend, and a new objective.
Darrell David Harrington, amidst his troubles, went to sleep smiling.