A series of knockbacks had left Bethany afraid to leave the house… so what was she doing sitting on a horse?
Whoa! I … don’t like this, Kyle,” Bethany said. She was sitting all tensed up astride Tulip, the old mare at Forest View Stables.
Why, oh why, had she agreed to go riding with her brother? When he’d suggested it, she thought it would be fun even though she’d never ridden anything more adventurous than her bike or a seaside donkey when they were kids.
This was too much, too soon. Why had she even thought she was ready for this next stage?
“Try to relax.” Kyle smiled from the saddle of his own horse, Nelson.
“Relax?” she shot back, sweat beading her forehead. “That’s easy for you to say. You’ve been riding for years.”
She hadn’t imagined she’d feel this scared. It was so high!
Tulip snorted and Bethany yelped.
“Careful – you’ll frighten Tulip.” Kyle laughed. “Look – don’t grip with your knees and keep your hands down. Beginners always think they have to cling on, but that confuses the horse.”
He slid off Nelson and walked over to her. Patting Tulip, he held onto the bridle, steadying the brown mare.
“Right – feeling safer now?”
“Err … yes.”
“Look ahead. Then imagine two lines. One from your elbows through your hands to the bit in Tulip’s mouth. And the other from your ear to your hip to your heel. It’ll help you to sit properly.”
Bethany did as he suggested and almost immediately felt better.
“See – it’s not that hard. You’ll love it once you get used to it.”
She wasn’t sure she’d ever love being several feet up in the air on top of a wild animal.
OK, Tulip did seem quiet and gentle and she was fairly old – but to Bethany, perched up here, the horse felt like an untamed creature.
Kyle was patting Tulip, soothing her.
It was a beautiful September day and after months indoors, the fresh country air felt good on her face. But she still worried she wasn’t ready and she was overtaken by a sudden desperate yearning to be back at home. Safe.
“You can’t stay indoors forever,” Kyle had encouraged her when he’d suggested today’s ride.
No – but was this a step too far?
The problem had crept up on Bethany without her noticing.
It had started last November. Being made redundant from the admin job she loved at the solicitors had been a huge blow, but she had expected to find similar work soon.
However, that hadn’t happened – and then the week after she’d finished at Britannia and Sons, she and Hal, her boyfriend of four years, had split up.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” he’d mumbled, his brown eyes pleading with her for understanding.
“Surely you could’ve come up with a more original excuse after all this time, Hal?” she’d cried as she watched him pack.
Later she discovered it was him – he’d been cheating on her with Milly Gabriel who ran the local farm shop.
But the final straw had come when her cherished old spaniel, Saffy, died two weeks before Christmas.
Without realising it, all her reasons for going out – dog walking, dates with Hal and travelling to work – disappeared.
At first, she was happy to stay indoors in front of the log burner. It had been a wet, cold winter.
It was only when she tried to venture out one sharp January day that she found she couldn’t.
“This is stupid,” she’d said the first time it happened.
She needed milk and bread and the first sparkle of sun had beckoned her out of her flat.
But when she put on her coat and gloves before opening the front door, she started shaking.
Her head feeling swimmy, she decided to forget her shopping trip. As she needed a lot of items, she simply arranged another online delivery.
No doubt she was coming down with something. When she was better, she would hit the shops with a vengeance.
“How about meeting me for a coffee?” her friend Ksenia said a few days later. They had worked together at Britannia and Sons. “We can compare notes about job hunting.”
“Sure – when are you free?”
“Every day. I can’t find a job either.”
Bethany arranged to meet Ksenia in town the next day but when she tried to leave the flat the same thing happened.
She shook and when she took a step outside, the ground seemed to tilt. She retreated and pulled out her phone.
“I’m sorry, Ksenia. I’m … not well. Can we make it another day?”
“Sure. Take it easy and text me when you’re feeling better.”
However, soon afterwards Ksenia found another job working for an accountant, so they never had a chance to rearrange their coffee date.
Now this had happened to Bethany a second time, she was worried she had a real problem. She wanted to confide in Kyle – but how could she tell her sporty, outdoorsy brother that she was afraid to even step outside?
In the end, Kyle spotted it before she worked up the courage to tell him.
“You never seem to go out any more. Is there a problem?”
She started to say, “No, of course not” but then burst into tears.
“Whatever is it, sis?” he’d asked.
“I think … there is something wrong. I know it sounds silly, but I can’t go outside.”
He’d led her to the sofa and given her a tissue. When she stopped crying, he made her tell him everything.
“Look, you can get over this. It’s a blip. Lots of things happened to you in a short space of time. Hal, the job, Saffy. You’ll be OK. We’ll get you some help.”
Through her tears she’d looked into his blue eyes.
“I miss Hal and Saffy so much and now this … I feel so stupid.”
“You’re not stupid; you have a condition. And you’ll get better from it. Leave it with me.”
Firstly, he arranged for her to speak to her GP over the phone who’d explained that agoraphobia was common and treatable. Immediately she felt a little better. The doctor prescribed a short course of antidepressants.
Then Kyle had kindly paid for her to have counselling at her flat.
Lucas made her feel better on sight. Tall with soft brown eyes, she’d trusted him right from their first session.
One day, he encouraged her to open the front door.
“I’m not sure…”
“Just try. I’m here and you can cope.”
Tentatively she did as he asked, expecting to feel palpitations, dizziness and frightening chest pains. But all she felt was the delicious fresh air on her face. She closed her eyes and smiled. The symptoms had gone.
“Could you step outside?”
Slowly she shook her head. “Not today but maybe next time…”
Lucas had smiled. “That’s fine. Just take baby steps. You’ve opened the door. Now, believe you can get well.”
Slowly over the next few weeks, Lucas encouraged Bethany to go outside. At first just onto the doorstep, then a few paces down the path.
Some days the dizziness returned. Not as strong as before but it reminded her where she’d been.
By the summer, she was ready for her first accompanied trip to town. She was desperate to visit the hairdressers.
“I could cheat – ask a mobile hairdresser to come to the flat. But I want to go to a salon. Be pampered again.”
“Well done, you,” Lucas had smiled.
Having a goal made her more determined. She asked Kyle to drive and collect her from the salon.
“No problem. If it means you’ll sort out your roots, I’ll take you to Land’s End!”
“Cheeky!” she’d laughed.
Sitting in Stylez and Smilez, she’d felt a million dollars.
With her recovery almost complete, Kyle suggested, “Look, come with me to the stables. We’ve some lovely quiet horses. It would give your confidence a boost to try something new.”
Kyle had been so patient with her over the last few months that in a rash moment she’d agreed. He loved riding. The least she could do was show some interest in his hobby.
And that was how she’d arrived here at Forest View Stables, sitting astride Tulip.
Slowly Kyle led the patient Tulip around the paddock.
“That’s it – sit up straight but relax,” he encouraged.
Bethany did as he suggested. The horse stepped forward. Wow! She was riding. The pace might be painfully slow and there was no way she’d allow Kyle to release his hold on Tulip – but she was actually riding!
“Want a go on your own?”
“Oh God, no!” She panicked.
Kyle laughed. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you until you’re ready.”
“Don’t be. Everyone learns in their own time. You’re doing really well.”
Kyle led Tulip and Bethany around the paddock several times. He even taught her to slalom through cones.
“Right – I think we’ll call it a day.”
Bethany smiled as he helped her to dismount. It wasn’t a moment too soon.
“What did you think? Did you enjoy it?”
“It was nerve wracking but yes, I did.” Tentatively, she patted Tulip who snorted her approval.
“Will you come again?”
“Um … yes, I think I might.”
It was only after Kyle dropped Bethany back at her flat that she felt the benefit of her visit to the stables. She’d always lacked the confidence to ride but here she was, having survived her first lesson!
If she could sit on a horse, which had always daunted her, then surely, she could achieve other goals.
Like going out alone again?
Filling the kettle, she bit her lip.
She’d coped when she was with Lucas and Kyle, but she hadn’t been out on her own yet. That felt insurmountable.
“Remember – baby steps,” Lucas had counselled.
Several times she’d opened the front door, ready to venture out but each time something stopped her. She wasn’t dizzy or breathless any more; the physical symptoms of her agoraphobia had long since disappeared, but mentally something prevented her.
The kettle boiled and clicked off.
Of course, she must go out alone. She couldn’t expect Kyle to escort her everywhere. And she needed to find a new job. She couldn’t do that unless she could travel on her own.
She finished making her coffee. Maybe one day she’d do it…
“Ksenia – how are you? How’s the new job going?”
“Fine. It’s the job I’m phoning about.”
Ksenia explained that the company she was working for was looking to expand. She’d told her boss that Bethany was a good worker, and he was keen to interview her.
“Oh, I don’t know –” She hesitated.
“You have a new job?”
“Then you must come and try here. Mr Lowe suggests Wednesday at two.”
Bethany took a deep breath.
She was about to tell Ksenia that she couldn’t go. That she was busy. That she was washing her hair… anything to avoid leaving the flat and travelling into town alone.
But then she remembered Kyle’s words – You can’t stay indoors forever.
“I … OK … thank you. Tell Mr Lowe I’ll meet him on Wednesday.”
Bethany hardly slept for the next few nights. How could she go into town alone? She decided to ask Kyle if he could take her to the interview.
“Sorry, sis. I’m in London for a meeting. Good luck, though.”
In desperation, she’d phoned Lucas.
“You’ve come so far, Bethany. You don’t need anyone with you. It’s time.
“Remember your breathing exercises. How to keep calm. Try to imagine the worst-case scenario, then work out how you’ll cope in the unlikely event that happens.”
Lucas’ voice soothed her, making her feel she could do anything.
Later she pulled from her wardrobe her smartest outfit – a fitted blue dress with three-quarter length sleeves. It had cost all her bonus one year, but it had been worth it.
Hal had loved her in it. She bit her lip. She did miss him. And Saffy.
As she held the dress to the light, she wondered which shoes to wear. Clothes had always given her confidence.
Tomorrow she’d try to go out alone. If she failed – at least she’d have tried. That was a step in the right direction, wasn’t it?
Everything went wrong on Wednesday morning. Bethany woke up to rain – always a bad omen.
She’d forgotten to switch on the boiler for her shower, which delayed her. Her tights laddered and applying her mascara, she missed and jabbed her eye, making it water for ages.
Eventually she was ready. Standing before the bedroom mirror, she again doubted she could do this. Not only was she worried about travelling into town alone, there was the added pressure of her first interview in years. How would she cope under pressure?
“Come on,” she told herself shakily. “You can do this. Baby steps. Start with leaving the flat.”
Grabbing her umbrella, she checked the time. Oh no – if she didn’t get a move on, she’d be late.
But standing at the front door, she hesitated, her fear returning. She couldn’t do this!
She’d phone Ksenia and explain. It was too much, too soon. After all, it had only been last week she’d gone riding with Kyle.
As she closed the door, she recalled that day.
Had she really ridden Tulip? Yes, she had – and during the ride, she hadn’t given her agoraphobia a thought.
Oh, she’d worried she was seated too high, that she might fall off or that Tulip might bolt, but she hadn’t been scared to be outdoors.
She’d done it then, couldn’t she do it again, now? Yes, she could!
Well, Miss Brookes, you’ve certainly got a lot of experience,” Adam Lowe said, his smile touching his blue eyes. “If your application’s successful, I could offer you a part-time position.”
Bethany was surprised. Ksenia had implied full-time jobs were available. Had she been through all this for nothing?
“I’m sorry – I thought you were recruiting full-time employees?”
If Adam Lowe hadn’t put her at her ease as soon as he’d opened his office door, she might have burst into tears.
She’d had a few rocky moments travelling to the offices but remembering Lucas’ advice, somehow she’d coped, giving her a huge sense of achievement.
“We are – but not for a few months. Is that a problem?”
Her first reaction was to tell him she was no longer interested but then she wondered, perhaps fewer hours would suit her. She was still recovering. Maybe working part-time would be less stressful and allow her time to get fully well?
“It could work…”
“In that case, I suggest you come along for a day’s trial. See if you like us. By then you might decide a part-time position would suit you?”
It sounded ideal. Even if she didn’t take the job, it would be useful experience.
As she left the offices, her mind was so busy, she stepped outside before she noticed.
She smiled. Every day she was improving.
She checked her watch. Her bus would be along in five minutes.
Standing under the shelter, a rider and horse trotted by. She watched them, thinking how the brown mare was like Tulip.
Tulip … she thought, remembering her first ride. That horse had given her so much confidence. She’d come a long way in the last week or so.
Baby steps? More like giant gallops. She smiled.
She’d travelled alone, then coped with a job interview, and now had a chance of some work.
Tomorrow, she thought, as she boarded her bus, she’d stop by Forest View Stables with a big bag of carrots for Tulip.
And while she was there, she’d book her second riding lesson.
Our My Weekly Favourites series of lovely short fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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