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Sorting Out The Ponies

* Story contains bad language

An African sun hangs over the Accrington field. Mary Ann squints against the glare, climbs over the garden fence and drops down into the grass next to the ponies.

She picks up a twig and pokes it through the hole in the concrete post that carries the middle wire of the fence. Shocked brown earwigs tumble from their lair and scuttle away like scorpions into the long grass. Mary Ann shudders with satisfaction then unties the ponies and sets off for the stable. Mino, the Palamino, is like a gilded fairground pony; Beauty, a black mare with a white diamond on her forehead.

Crickets whir deep within the yellowed grass and fat bees murmur as they caress the clover beneath their bodies. Across the field, the ducks quack raucously, their laughter carrying from the pond that lies in a hollow near the neighbouring fence. Mary Ann walks the ponies over the crazy-paving bed of the dried-up stream, up the hill and into their stable. She chats to them as she opens her grooming box and takes out a metal curry comb.

"What you doing, talking to them brushes?"

Billy Snalem stands watching her at the open door of the shed, his eyes huge and gleaming behind the jam jar lens of his glasses, the frames of which are held together with pink elastoplast. Mary Ann stops, frozen in her tracks, her mother's old hair comb hovering over the bristles of the tall brush. The other brush leans against the shelf, its head buried into a string shopping bag, stuffed tight with dried grass.

Billy's legs are thin and his knees knobbly and pronounced. Flamingo legs Mary Ann calls them after watching a wildlife programme, although she knows she mustn't laugh at those less fortunate than herself. Besides, he'd thump her if he found out. Billy is ten and a half years old. Mary Ann is just nine. His worn, grey shorts are always wedged up his behind where he's been scratching and he often has nits. His mother spends most of her time in the pub, his father most of his time in prison. No-one is allowed to play with Billy so he hangs about, watching others.

"Why you talking to them brushes?" he repeats. "And don't say you wasn't 'cause I've been watching."

His gaze wanders around the shed, to the loops of bias binding sewn together and attached at strategic points with small safety pins - the head collars. Two old dog leads hang on the nails beside them - the lead reins. A cardboard box sits on the floor, full of scrubbing brushes and dusters; elastic bands for plaiting manes and tails; two faded pieces of satin-edged blanket, the names of each pony sewn in chain stitch across the corners.

Billy puts a toe over the threshold and pokes the fresh grass newly scattered on the floor. The old pile is heaped tidily behind the back of the shed. Mary Ann feels afraid. He will tell everyone in the class about her game. The only time anyone listens to Billy is when he's telling tales or making things up to get attention - about Alan Johnson messing his pants, about Father Christmas not being real, about the noises in the bedroom when his Dad's away, about Mary Ann talking to brushes in the shed.

She looks at the brushes, now so obviously only brushes, propped up on the shelf together. One has a ribbon tied in among the bristles, the other a splodge of white paint in the middle of its head - a white diamond. In the corners of the window there are furry, grey bundles of spider nests. The surrounding webs hold the shining wings of flies and the crooked legs of daddy-long-legs abandoned in a desperate bid for escape. She hasn't noticed this before.

"It's only a game," she says at last, her voice small and shaky.

Billy's courage grows at her defensiveness. He steps into the shed, setting the floor boards creaking underfoot, and stalks around like a detective. He moves towards the two brushes.

"Leave them alone, Billy! Mum's in the kitchen. I'll yell for her, I will."

Billy smiles, revealing large, gappy front teeth.

"She dunt frighten me. I'm not frightened of anybody, me. Any road ..." He reaches out a nail bitten hand, letting it hover near the brush and watching Mary Ann's reaction. "I'll get me own Mum round. She'll sort your Mum out. Everyone's scared of me Mum," he adds proudly.

Anger rises in Mary Ann. The back of her neck begins to prickle, a sure sign of temper. She scratches hard at the nape of her neck.

"Get out Billy, go on, bugger off."

"You swore! I'll tell on you. Your mum dunt like that sort of thing. Your mum thinks she's posh, better than rest round here. You're mental you are, talking to brushes like that." Billy pushes his lower lip out with his tongue and points a finger to his temple, making a screwing action to emphasise the point.

Suddenly he grabs a brush and runs out of the shed. He straddles the pole and pretends to gallop around the field. Tears start in Mary Ann's eyes. Beauty, he's taken Beauty.

Billy jumps an imaginary fence, laughing at the pretence. "I'll take it t'Grand National," he shouts and heads off in the direction of the duck pond. Mary Ann chases after him, brushing the tears away with one hand while the other still tries to scratch the red hot angry neck.

Mosquito larvae thrash in the retreating water of the pond. Plump white Aylesbury ducks sit among the mess of droppings and mud. Billy edges down the bank, sending the flies up into a whirling frenzy around his head. Behind the fence, the neighbouring geese sway their necks and hiss.

"Want some water, horsey?" Billy holds the head of the brush down to the stagnant water. He dips the bristles in, making sure they get duck shit on their tips. Mary Ann watches from above. Suddenly she rushes down the bank with a banshee cry. She grabs the brush and wrestles with the pole. At first Billy laughs as they struggle but Mary Ann's stick-like arms are stiff and strong with anger. She wrests the brush from his hand, holds it high in the air then whacks him across the head with it. At the same time, she raises a leg and kicks the boy back into the pond as hard as she can. Billy lands on his back in the turbid water. His glasses slip from his eyes and lie half way down his cheeks, smeared with dirt. He fumbles to stretch the bendy wire behind his ears. Mary Ann holds tight to the brush and runs.

The kitchen window is fogged with condensation. Mary Ann's mother is doing the weekly wash and making lemon curd at the same time. The earthenware jar rattles inside the pan of bubbling water.

Mary Ann suddenly appears at the back door, out of breath and obviously out of sorts. Her mother looks up in surprise. Mary Ann twists one leg behind the other, hiding the new trophy that has joined the many scabs and scars on her dirty knees. She has managed to avoid a bath two nights running.

Her mother carries on hauling a wet sheet from the washing machine and feeds it through the rollers of the mangle. The mangle slowly spews out the sheet, stiff and squashed into a flat, creased package. Mary Ann stays in the doorway, silent and watching, scratching the back of her neck.

"What's the matter? Have you been up to mischief?" her mother asks.

"No!"

Mary Ann kicks a sandalled toe at the doorframe and looks down at the floor.

"Are you frightened of Billy Snalem's mum?" she asks at last.

Mary Ann's mother laughs. "What a funny thing to say! I don't know the woman and from what I've heard I don't want to either. And I can't say I'd be pleased if you got mixed up with young Billy, although we should be kind to those worse off than us," she adds dutifully. "It's not Billy's fault after all."

"I hate Billy Snalem. I wish he were dead."

"Well, that's not very nice is it? And it's was not were."

"I don't care. In fact, he might be dead already. And good riddance to bad rubbish."

She is pleased with this dramatic statement and her use of 'in fact'. But her mother doesn't respond and Mary Ann is changing her mind about mentioning the duck pond incident.

Her mother's hands are puffy and red with water and detergent. They skillfully guide the clothes through the mangle. Mary Ann's and her sister's small knickers are gathered together in a bundle with bigger items so they won't become lodged and go round and round the rollers. They emerge on the other side, packed tight in the folds of another flattened sheet.

"Can I put something through?" Mary Ann asks this every holiday wash day and each time is refused. She never gives up.

"It's too dangerous. You'll get your fingers trapped. Remember what happened to Susan ..." Her mother launches into the familiar cautionary tale of trapped fingers, broken and bleeding in the rollers of the mangle. Mary Ann is only allowed to put the powder in, shaking the blue granules onto the clothes, pressing the button to set the prop revolving, backwards and forwards, swishing through the water and churning the clothes. She likes to watch the granules dissolve in the hot water, the bubbles begin to form. But she is old enough now to do more.

"Am I too old for pretend?" she asks. Her mother laughs.

"Of course not, no-one's ever too old for pretend."

This is patently not true. Her mother doesn't play horses with brushes or make teepees with dried, rosebay willow herb stalks. She cooks and bakes and sews and washes and cleans.

"It's good to use your imagination. But I would like some of my kitchen back from your horse game," her mother says. "I need one of the buckets and a scrubbing brush. And I could do with the string bag for a while, until I get round to buying a new one."

"You can have it all back. I don't want them any more."

Her mother glances across but Mary Ann looks away from her eyes. She picks up the peg bag. Her mother lifts the heavy wicker basket of washing. They go out into the garden to the line. Some of the pegs have faces painted on their round wooden heads, strands of wool for hair and scraps of fabric for dresses and shawls. The peg family live a gypsies' life. They have a caravan which is colourful and patterned and has huge spoked wheels, painted red and yellow.

Mary Ann hands pegs to her mother who holds one in the corner of her mouth while she deals with another.

"I bet there's no such thing as Father Christmas," Mary Ann's heart pounds as she says this, a statement rather than a question.

Her mother stops in surprise and takes the peg from her mouth.

"Goodness, what brought that up in the middle of August?"

"In fact, I know there's no Father Christmas. It's just you and Dad, isn't it? I saw the presents under your bed."

Her mother finishes the sheet she is looping along the line and puts up the prop to stop it draping on the dusty, dry garden. Mary Ann feels her discomfort and wishes she didn't. She wants to bury her head in the flowery pinafore and take back what she has just said. But this time she can't.

Her mother kneels down. Her face is level with Mary Ann's. Her arms encircle the small frame.

"You've had a lot of fun out of it over the years, haven't you? All the excitement of waiting for Father Christmas, leaving him mince pies and the carrots for the reindeer." Her eyes seem to beg forgiveness. Mary Ann feels sick in the stomach. She shrugs and pulls a face.

"It doesn't matter. I'm not bothered or anything. So you bought me that cowgirl outfit?"

Her mother nods.

"And the selection boxes and the slippers and nightie. And the cash register?" Her mother still nods.

The sun beats down on the washing. A breeze buffets the sheets and sets the socks and pants dancing on the line. The prop sways a little.

"Perfect drying weather," her mother comments and Mary Ann agrees. They walk back toward the house, Mary Ann carrying the peg bag, her mother with the washing basket under her arm, resting it on her hip. The brush lies on the ground across the path.

"That's dangerous there," her mother says. She notes the white paint daubed on the head of the brush. "Better take Beauty back to the stable, keep her out of trouble."

"It's Pal who causes ..." Embarrassment creeps over Mary Ann. She picks up the brush and leans it against the outhouse wall.

Billy Snalem is waiting by the kitchen door. Mary Ann's mother straightens up tall to face the unexpected situation. Mary Ann's heart beats hard and fast.

"Hello Billy, what brings you here?" her mother says. "And looking a bit dishevelled I might add. You've not been swimming in the duck pond?" Her voice sounds strange, too jolly and friendly. Her mouth is set in a smile.

"She pushed me in, she did. She whacked me, right across here with that brush," Billy points to the side of his head and to the brush leaning against the wall. "It's lucky I'm not dead, or gone mental or something. She could have cracked me head open."

Mary Ann feels her mother's tension. She sucks in her bottom lip and looks down at the ground.

"Is that true Mary Ann? Did you hit Billy with the brush?"

"He picked on me first. He was laughing at me."

"That's not really the point is it. Did you hit him with the brush?"

"Yes."

Billy smirks and scratches himself.

"Then you'd better apologise right now. I won't put up with that kind of behaviour. I can't believe you did such a thing. Go on, say you're sorry."

Mary Ann mumbles an apology. Her mother makes her repeat it, louder and clearer and in a more heartfelt fashion.

Billy smiles cheerfully.

"I told me own Mum. She told me to sod off and sort it out. She says I make things up."

Mary Ann glances up at her mother, curious to see her reaction to this. Her mouth remains fixed in a smile and her voice is still jolly.

"Oh well, it's sorted now," her mother says. "Would you like me to look at your head for you?"

Billy looks surprised, then pleased, then embarrassed at the idea. He shuffles his feet and looks down to hide his reddening cheeks.

"No, no I'm alright really." He puts his hands in his pockets and sniffs a juicy, catarrhal sniff. "Right, I'll be off then." He walks back across the garden and climbs the fence into the field.

Mary Ann sits in her bedroom, being punished. She kneels up on her bed and looks out of the window across the fields and allotments, beyond the rows of terraced houses toward the Pennines. A train snakes its way across the viaduct and slides into a tunnel in the hillside. She counts the seconds until it reappears and makes up a story about lost trains disappearing into mountains, full of wailing, ghostly passengers. Her stomach rumbles through lack of food.

"Can we make a cake?" she asks in the kitchen later that day. "Jenny Shuttleworth's mum lets her do baking."

"I don't see why not," her mother replies. "You're very responsible these days. Most of the time anyway," she adds with a wry look. "We can use the lemon curd I made. It should be cool enough by now."

Mary Ann's chest swells with pride as she rows the eggs along the table. She carefully taps the shells on the edge of the bowl and lets the eggs slither on top of each other, her tongue gripped between her teeth as she concentrates hard. She weighs the sugar and butter and puts them to one side while she opens a new bag of flour. It thuds out of the packet into the measuring bowl, making the scales clank. Annoyed at her clumsiness, she waves away the white cloud and scoops out the excess with her hands. She goes over to the sink to wash her hands. Her mind flickers back to Billy Snalem. She pulls herself up by the taps to see out of the window. The contents of the shed are scattered over the grass and the door is flapping open. Mino's head is crammed into a bucket. Her mother is spooning lemon curd from the earthenware pot into shiny glass jars when she returns to the table. She questions her daughter's silence with a smile but Mary Ann blinks back the tears and carries on with her measuring. This isn't the right time to talk about it, not with all this work to get done. And sorting out the ponies will just have to wait.