On George’s Day

On George's Day Cover

Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne

Recommended reading age 9 years +

In the exciting sport of chatter and squeal racing, monkey jockeys, known as chatterers, ride tall, muscular, fleet-footed racing pigs known as squealers.

The Puffwhistle family, which includes the legendary chatterer George, are very successful at racing. This means that Mrs. Puffwhistle can afford her expensive, life-saving medicine.

But Mr Scrunge, the family’s old enemy, forces changes to the sport in the shape of Hairy Devil and Red Beast, a chatterer and squealer of huge size. They bring terror and wickedness to the racing for the first time, and stop the Puffwhistles from winning races.

Not only is Mrs. Puffwhistle’s health at risk now but also the entire happy future of England’s chatterers and squealers.

Can the Puffwhistles do anything about this new horror on the track? Can the great George take Hairy Devil on? Or will the new menace destroy them all?

The extract below is chapter 1.

Life at the Puffwhistles

Berty Puffwhistle rushed out of the kitchen and into the hallway, waving a dishcloth about.

“Is she ready, Jack?”

His son, standing at the top of the stairs, gazed along the corridor to his parents’ bedroom. The door remained closed.

“Not yet, Dad.”

Berty dashed back to the kitchen.

Eventually, the bedroom door opened and Lizzie Puffwhistle stepped out into the corridor. She was a tall woman with shoulder-length, dark hair and these days a thin, pale face. She wore a white jumper and white skirt and both hung loosely off her frame. Her slender figure moved cautiously toward her son. Despite her tired look, she gave the boy a warm smile.

Jack ran forward and took her hand, and they made their way to the staircase. His mum leant her weight on the banister while keeping a grip on her son’s arm, and then both descended one step at a time. Halfway down, she stopped with a sigh.

“Have the boys arrived?” she asked.

“Any minute now, Mum.”

“George isn’t one to be late.”

Breathless, Berty appeared in the hallway and smiled up at her. “Dinner’s ready.” He began to climb the stairs.

Jack raised his hand. “I can do it, Dad!”

When Lizzie Puffwhistle stepped off the last step she accepted her husband’s hand, and with slow steps they all went through to the dining room.

The doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it.” Jack dashed out the room.

The three chatterers, or monkey jockeys, stood waiting on the doorstep in evening dress: black jacket and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. They wore nothing on their feet. In order of seniority, they were George, Billy, and Smithy. Their long thick tails, sticking out the backs of their trousers, curled upwards at Jack’s smiling face.

George was a monkey not even three feet tall, but he always stood with the calm confidence of a creature twice his height. Though his eyes had always been dark mysterious pools touched with a little sadness, Jack thought they’d grown sadder in recent days. George’s light-pink face deepened a little as he asked in Chatlish, the common chatterer language, “How is she tonight, Jack?”

“Not too bad,” Jack replied in Chatlish.

Once they were all inside the front door, George said to the others, “Don’t let me down tonight. Remember your table manners.”

Like his uncle George, Smithy had a light-pink face with white sideburns, and very large intense eyes. “I’m going to be on my best behaviour, Uncle George.”

“Manners never cost a penny,” George added.

The other chatterer, Billy, had black fur, a black face and a flat nose. Much bigger than the average jockey, he stood at three feet three inches tall and had big hands and feet and a long curving tail. He had light-brown mischievous eyes and nearly always a grin on his face. His size, combined with his grin, made him appear wild and menacing and even his evening dress failed to make him look respectable. Now he rolled up his eyes and reckoned, “Nothing to get excited about. We’ve dined here a thousand times before, man.”

“But it won’t be the same without Lizzie’s cooking.” George fiddled excitedly with his bow tie. “Let’s just hope she’ll be well again in no time and running this house as it should be run.”

Jack grinned. “Dad’s never cooked before in his entire life.”

“Let’s not break the man’s spirit on his first go out,” George said with a weary sigh.

In the dining room above the fireplace hung a huge portrait of George in his red-and-white-striped jockey silks seated on the Blind Lightning, the legendary blind racing pig. The artist’s initials, LP, were to be found in the right bottom corner: Lizzie Puffwhistle. In the portrait, George’s right hand held the racing pig’s reins. Instead of having a left sleeve, his silk vest was stitched closed at his left shoulder. George had never had a left arm. The George in the painting had a few less wrinkles on his face than the George who now took Lizzie Puffwhistle’s hand and kissed it. “And how are you this evening, Lizzie?”

“So so, George,” she replied in his Chatlish language. “Sit down everyone! You boys must be hungry after a hard day’s training.”

“I could eat a horse,” Billy cried out.

All the family spoke Chatlish with the chatterers present. Berty now said in that language, “I’ve done my best. Might not be up to Lizzie’s high standards, but what can you expect of a raw beginner.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be more than adequate,” George said.

“Bring it on, man!” Billy whooped.

Everyone at the table was Yorkshire born and bred, except for Billy. He came from Newcastle, which was why he often called everyone ‘man’.

Smithy seated himself beside his uncle, grabbing up a knife and fork and sticking his elbows on the table.

George visibly recoiled, and said quietly to his nephew, “Put down the knife and fork, lad. There’s nothing to eat yet. And get those elbows off the table! How many times do you have to be told?”

“Sorry, Uncle George.”

“I’ll help bring out the food, Dad.”

“I can manage, Jack.”

Lizzie spread some butter on a piece of French bread and Jack followed her example. With a glance at Smithy, Jack crammed some bread into his mouth, swallowing quickly. Smithy opened his eyes wide at Jack’s gluttony. Then, sticking a bit of butter on his own bread, he shoved a big piece into his mouth.

George caught the action from the corner of his eye. “You’re not in the Clubhouse now, lad,” he whispered.

Berty brought out the soup and filled their bowls. Then he sat down opposite his wife and lifted his spoon. Silence settled in as everyone began sipping or blowing on their soup.

After a few sips, Berty glanced round the table. But no one looked up and caught his eye. So he cleared his throat, “How’s the soup?”

All but George answered, “Fine. Good effort, Berty.” And, “Good one, Dad.”

Berty Puffwhistle had soft friendly eyes and a quiet face that made you think of a teacher or a librarian. He even wore old-fashioned, brown-framed spectacles that heightened that impression. He dressed in brown or grey colours and certainly wasn’t the sort to draw attention to himself, or seek praise for whatever he did in any way. Yet it was obvious now that he wanted to discuss his cooking skills.

He said to George, “I used fresh tomatoes and fresh basil for the soup.”

“That’s the way to do it, man,” Billy cried.

“You haven’t said anything so far about the soup, George.”

George put down his spoon and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. “I’m not sure what to make of it, Berty.”

“Not sure?”

“Oh, I like it right enough.”

“But there’s a problem?”

“Not exactly, Berty. It’s just that… well, the basil’s fine.”

“But?”

“It’s the tomatoes, you see.”

“What’s wrong with the tomatoes, George?”

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the tomatoes, Berty. The tomatoes are perfectly fine. It’s just that… when you blend the tomatoes you shouldn’t blend them completely to liquid. You should still have the bits.”

“The bits?”

“Bits of tomato. That’s the way Lizzie does it. You don’t use overkill.”

Berty’s jaw fell down.

Lizzie put her hand over her mouth to hide her silent laughter. “But you do like it, George?” she asked.

“I still like it,” George admitted, returning to the soup.

Humbly bowing his head, Berty promised, “I’ll try and do better next time.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will, Berty,” George agreed.

Smithy asked, “Will it be long before you can cook again, Mrs. Puffwhistle?”

“I’ll be getting my new medicine shortly, and fingers crossed, I’ll have more energy to do things again.”

“You’ll be back to your old self in no time, Lizzie,” Berty insisted.

When they’d finished the soup, Berty removed the bowls from the table. Soon a joint of roast beef circled with roast potatoes on a big silver tray appeared on the table. Smaller dishes of cauliflower, carrots, peas, mashed potato and Yorkshire pudding quickly followed. And last but not least, a sauce boat of steaming gravy arrived.

Within a minute, they were all tucking in.

“Very nice beef.”

“How’s the sauce?” Berty asked.

“Excellent.”

Jack, Billy and Smithy, all with their mouths full, nodded in agreement. Jack and Smithy were secretly competing with one another to see who could get though the meal the quickest. But George was picking at his food.

After a while, Berty asked, “What do you think of it, George?”

George frowned. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll get used to it.”

Mother and son glanced at one another and their eyes flashed with merriment. Lizzie said to change the subject, “The sooner I’m better the sooner things will get done about the house. Nobody thinks to do any dusting.”

“We can help you about the house, Lizzie,” George insisted. “Apart from dusting, which I don’t understand in the slightest, what sort of things need doing?”

“There’s the picture I want hung up on the staircase wall.”

In no time at all, Jack had finished the last bit of food on his plate, and now was grinning triumphantly at Smithy who had yet to finish his dinner.

Jack reminded his mum, “And you want the piano brought downstairs.”

“I want to spend more time in the living room. Going up and down the stairs tires me too much.”

When the main course was over, father and son collected the plates off the table.

Billy burped gently and said, “I like a good bit of spud and Yorkshire pudding inside me, man. I like it right here in the pit of my stomach.” He put his hands flat on his stomach and pushed in gently. “That food went down a treat.”

George said, “I don’t have my appetite today,” as Jack picked up his half-finished plate off the table.

“I’m sure it’ll return next time,” Lizzie said in sympathy.

But George said, “Perhaps.”

From the kitchen, they heard the sound of a dish smashing.

Lizzie raised her voice. “What happened, dear?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Berty shouted out to them.

George stuck a toothpick in his mouth. “Berty’s got a lot to learn,” he said.

“I’d better see if he needs help.” Lizzie began to rise from the table.

“No need, Lizzie!” George jumped up. “You just stay right in that chair and rest yourself. Berty’s a grown man. He can take care of himself.”

She put a hand to her brow and took in a deep breath. “Yes, you’re right, George.”

Returning from the kitchen, Jack asked, “What’s the matter, Mum?”

“I think I got up too quickly. What broke?”

“Only an old baking dish.”

“You’ve got to lie down, Lizzie,” George said gently.

“No need for fussing,” she said. “Just give me a minute.”

Jack noticed her face looked suddenly much paler, which he didn’t think was down to the broken dish.

*

The Puffwhistle house lay in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside between the old spa town of Ilkley and the ruins of Bolton Abbey. Hills with green pasture rising to dark upper moors dominated the landscape. Dry stonewalling had cut the green parts of the hills into various-shaped fields, in which cattle, sheep and horses grazed. Woodland nestled in the valleys and dips of the lower lands and the river Wharfe flowed noisily along at the lowest point.

The stone house had a slate roof. The old wooden window frames and door were painted brown. A gravel driveway curled up to the front door. A small wood of beech, poplar and oak trees surrounded the house. Out back stood an old stone barn, a stable, tack room and an artist’s workshop. Beyond these buildings and the garden lay a quarter-mile meadow known as the gallops. The gallops had developed over several years: stones and sharp objects had been removed and the field sown with a mixture of special grasses to make a soft ground on which the racing pigs – more commonly known as squealers – could exercise safely without likely fear of injury. The gallops had a set of thirty-two-inch high fences on it as the Puffwhistle squealers were jumpers as well as flat racers. The average height of a squealer to the top of his shoulder is thirty-nine inches or three feet three inches.

Though it was only five thirty in the morning, with the sun still not fully clear of the hills, Jack, the jockeys and squealers were out training on the gallops.

Smithy was cantering Elizabeth’s Gem (named after Lizzie Puffwhistle) down the gentle slope of the meadow. The squealers only ever galloped up the meadow, which made it much safer on their tendons than downhill galloping. The woodland at the meadow’s far end rang noisy with birdsong. Smithy turned in front of the beech and oak trees and began his gallop back up the meadow’s gentle slope. Jack watched the Gem’s big powerful rump working those back legs, propelling his jockey with ease up the field. The Gem, an excellent sprinter, was also a stamina animal, and was easy to ride and very predictable, which was ideal for Smithy, who was an apprentice (beginner) jockey.

When Smithy finished his run, Jack waved him over. The Gem bounded across like a big Labrador, licking at Jack’s hands. The boy ran one hand down the squealer’s pink neck, steadying him.

“Gallop him flat out for two hundred metres, and do it three times. Give three minutes rest between each sprint. But don’t let him stand still.”

“Will do, Jack.”

“You’re going to be in some big apprentice races from now on. You’ll need to start quickly so as not to get boxed in by the other beginners. It can be a nightmare if you’re trapped in a crowd approaching the first fence. We must get the Gem’s muscles and brain used to a great start and to be in front at the first fence.”

“Right, Jack.”

Jack glanced over to the house, to his parents’ bedroom window, and saw a light go on inside. His dad had turned that light on. His mum would get up now. Today she had to go to London for an appointment with a medical specialist. Dad would help her dress and get down the stairs and then make her breakfast before driving her to London. Not so long ago she’d done everything for herself. Jack understood that the medicine she now took was only slowing her illness, not stopping it. Eventually, she would get worse if she stayed on the same treatment. He also understood that this new medicine she would soon be on might not actually stop the illness from getting worse.

And what if it didn’t? His stomach tightened. He turned at the sound of Elizabeth’s Gem bursting into a sudden gallop from a standing start. The squealer’s balance looked perfect as he sprinted past the fifty metre flag. Jack believed he’d be the most talented runner in his next race. The squealer had broken his maiden (first win) on his very first race, beating the rest of the field by ten lengths. The Chatter and Squeal Magazine had written about him: ‘A squealer to watch out for.’ The Puffwhistle name was famous in racing, and George and the Blind Lightning were track legends, so Jack knew the magazine was always going to watch their squealers closely and say promising things about them. All the same, the Gem had won six out of seven quality beginner races which could only be seen as a great start.

Jack looked at his stopwatch and shook his head: he’d forgotten to time the sprint. He glanced over again at the house.

Giggleswick, white with black patches on his head, back and legs, was a big squealer and Billy a big chatterer, so they nicely matched one another in size. No matter how much Jack groomed the squealer, he still looked a bit scruffy. And no matter how well fed and rested, he still had an ‘out-to-lunch’ look in his eye. He had that in common with Billy, too.

Billy settled into a three-quarter gallop heading toward the jumps. Giggleswick had an awkward way of running, but it said nothing about his ability. Approaching a high fence, the squealer seemed to hesitate with a slight nod of the head. This was a quirk of his, a habit he had before jumping. He cleared the fence well.

Though he’d retired two years earlier, George never missed a morning out on the gallops with the Blind Lightning. With Billy on Giggleswick, George and the Blinded now put the Gem through his paces. The two more experienced squealers made the Gem start quickly and then hemmed him in as he ran toward the first fence. The Gem forced himself out from between the other two, pulling his head and front legs high and making a clean jump.

After a series of quick starts followed by hard jumps, the Gem stopped to rest. Smithy himself was gasping for breath.

“It’s much harder when I get jostled like that,” he admitted.

“That’s the way it’ll be, lad,” George said. “Apprentice jockeys find it hard to control their squealers.”

Jack heard a neighing from the field below the gallops. He spied the tall, chestnut horse standing beyond the gate separating the two fields. He ran over, taking an apple from his pocket.

“Morning, Oily.” He held the apple out.

He’d tried to get up on Oily’s back many times, but the horse had never stood still long enough for him to succeed. Oily was slippery to the touch; his name well suited him. Oily finished the apple and then swung his body away from Jack.

“That’s not very friendly. You take my apple and then ignore me.”

The boy climbed the gate and waded through the dewy knee-high grass. But before he got within six feet, Oily raised his head, tail and knees sharply, and cantered away. High hedges and trees blocked the view into this field from the gallops. Jack checked that George couldn’t see him, and then ran at Oily. He managed to get a hand on his mane, but Oily bolted forward before the boy was able to swing up onto his back.

A blackbird flew low overhead, dropping a sharp disapproving cry at the boy. George would give him the same if he knew what he’d been up to. Jack was puffing hard in frustration. One day he’d get up on Oily’s back. One day he’d do it every time. Then he’d show his skill off to the others.

As he climbed back over the gate, Oily whinnied at him. To Jack it sounded like a mocking cry. ‘Tired already, Jack?’ the horse seemed to say. Usually, the boy would make several more attempts to get up on Oily‘s back, but today he had other things on his mind.

*

The stable contained three stalls, a squealer resting in each one. As usual at this time of day, classical music was playing in the stable. The squealers loved their music in the morning.

The Blinded always kept his head raised high, except when he had his snout stuck in a fresh cabbage. Now he was twisting it this way and that, ripping the vegetable to pieces.

The squealers’ body hair was the same thickness as a horse’s and needed quite as much grooming, and looked just as shiny when groomed properly. Jack picked up the rubber comb and using a circular motion worked away on the Blinded’s coat, keeping an eye out for anything that might be caught under the hairs. The Blinded was a strong, though elegant squealer, mostly light-brown, but with black patches from his thighs down to his ankles. And those legs were quite long with a look of lightness about them. They had never seemed to tire in a race.

Billy and Smithy were grooming Giggleswick and Elizabeth’s Gem. George sat on a bale of straw, giving instructions to his nephew.

Smithy said, “I know the course on my next race has a fence right on a tight bend. What’ll I do about it?”

Billy grinned, “You jump it.”

“You can practice some tight bend running tomorrow,” George said.

“There seems to be so much to learn so quickly,” Smithy said with a troubled grimace.

After the grooming, Smithy threw a towel across the Gem’s pink back and then rubbed the towel into him to bring out the shine. Next, he used the hoof pick to scrape away any dirt lodged under the hooves. His hard work was rewarded by a nod of satisfaction from his uncle.

“Just keep your head about you,” George said. “You won’t win any races by losing it. But you might win some by keeping it.”

“I’ll wear my best lucky charm for the race.”

“Your best lucky charm is your own brain, lad. I suggest you wear that all the time.”

Jack mucked out the stalls. Once he’d removed all the soiled straw, he scrapped a shovel along the floor to remove any stuck straw or dirt. Then he threw down fresh straw. He threw some over Smithy, too, who picked out a long piece of it and stuck it in his mouth.

“I won’t lose my head,” he said coolly, winking at Jack.

As soon as they lay down on their fresh beds, the squealers fell asleep. Jack turned the music off, wiped the sweat off his brow and checked his watch. He dashed out the barn and round to the front of the house where he stopped breathless on the gravel drive. The car was still here. He closed his eyes and took in a huge lungful of air.

The front door opened. His mum smiled at him, “Finished on the gallops then, Jack?”

He threw his arms round her thin body. She kissed him on top of the head and then took his hand and walked with him to the car.

“It might be very late before we’re back,” his dad reminded him from behind the steering wheel.

“I know.”

The engine started and all too quickly the car disappeared out the drive.

*

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