This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Tim McGuire.
I moved to London a few months before I turned twenty-three. I’d fallen into a rut in Brisbane and I thought moving to the other side of the world would sort me out. I imagined myself sitting at an old window-facing desk in a cramped London apartment, sipping tea and listening to The National while the always-grey sky moved me to finally write my book or submit to Voiceworks before I turned twenty-five.
London though, for all its culture, for all its history and its myriad futures, is just another city, one where the roads has actual ruts. It favours the literal over the figurative. Moving there doesn’t award you any time or money or energy you didn’t have already. In fact it robs you of these things. I barely wrote at all, not books, not even postcards. Once, I saw the house where Herman Melville had lived, but I was hurrying to catch a glimpse of Lindsay Lohan after a play, and I didn’t stop to look.
A year later, en route back home to Australia, I flew to a Greek island called Skyros, where I had arranged to work on a ranch with miniature horses for six weeks. I’d heard about these sorts of volunteer opportunities from a friend of mine, where working on a farm for five hours a day bought you food and board. The rest of your time was yours to use as you saw fit. Like a writing retreat, I thought, but with horses. I’d spent hours on the volunteer website clicking through idyllic-looking photos of young 20-somethings running freely on the beach with a herd of majestic horses. They looked like happy people.
When I arrived at the ranch, the only available tent in the volunteers’ campsite was a tiny yellow thing, bubble-shaped, less a rustic home-away-from home than something you’d expect to see inflate out of an infected wound. It wasn’t waterproof. I dragged a giant sheet of plastic over it and weighed it down with rocks. In the mornings I crawled out through the plastic tunnel like a flaccid penis exiting a condom. I lived in it for two weeks, sleeping in a ball so as to keep my feet inside and out of reach of the centipedes. When a regular-sized tent became available with the departure of another volunteer I moved in immediately, marveling at all the extra space, remarking on it to the other volunteers as if I were a new neighbour just moved from the city to the suburbs for the first time.
Up at the farmhouse, things weren’t much better. By trial and error I learnt there was only one toilet with a strong enough flush to be totally effective. I guessed my new diet had something to do with it; my Greek turds floated where my Australian ones used to sink, and their newfound Hellenic buoyancy easily resisted a weak flush. Once, I was watching two of them bobbing on the surface when someone tried to open the locked bathroom door. Panicking, I grabbed at the unsinkable Spartan shits, one into each hand. I wrapped each one in toilet paper, around and around until the brown water stopped blooming through the layers. I stuffed them into my pockets and did my best to look nonchalant as I emerged from the stall. They say travel makes you discover things about yourself.
And then there were the horses themselves, all forty-eight of them. Though they were small, their strength was superior to ours, their bites and kicks just as dangerous as if the animals hadn’t been fun-sized. My initial anxiety around the creatures lessened as my exposure to them increased. We worked together every day: feeding, watering, chasing the herd between paddocks, freeing stones from their hooves and burs from their manes, but mostly we just cleaned up the their shit, wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of it. I learnt the Greek words for shit, wheelbarrow and full, useful words, but my ideal vocabulary would have also included the words for help, stop and muscle spasm.
Then one day there was a break in our routine. Manolis, our barrel-chested, non-English speaking boss, communicated that we would be taking the horses to the beach for a photo shoot. He wanted publicity photos for his website to show prospective donors how happy his volunteers were. We thought it was a great idea, we didn’t know any better. We were, for now but not for long, still happy volunteers.
Down at the beach, Manolis signaled to us to let the horses off their leads. We were eight volunteers, each one of us responsible for a different horse. I was more than happy to let Persephone off her lead; since arriving at the beach the mare had been skittish and uncooperative, nipping at my arm and screaming if I went too near the water. I freed her and hastily backed away.
Manolis waved us off down the beach: he wanted the volunteers to form a line from the water to the dunes to prevent the horses from wandering off. We obliged him, making a lazy, human barricade fifty metres away. And what happened next happened without any warning. The big Greek man looked at his eight docile horses and then he lunged at them, throwing up his hands and roaring like a madman.
The horses went ballistic. Eyes grew white, legs splayed, mouths opened for deep-throated animal screams. And then the horses were running, running free, straight at us. The distance closed in seconds. They were too spooked, the distance too short. They couldn’t slow down, in fact they were speeding up.
Like Simba in the gorge we waited for the stampede. Eight horses, four legs each. I’d never been good at maths but the sum came to me easily: thirty-two hooves, furious and fatal. At Manolis’ request, we were barefoot. He wanted the aesthetics to be just right.
I don’t remember the impact but it is captured in a photograph. In it, I am directly targeted by a single horse (by Persephone – bitch), but I have managed to get my arms around her neck, and although her momentum has pulled me away and off my feet, my stupidly long body has whipped around and closed her in. It looks like we’re hugging. And perhaps we were, because I was just so happy not to have been trampled to death by a miniature horse. And Manolis got his photo. It hasn’t appeared on the website yet, but I’m thinking of having it framed.
Of course, not all the horses were stopped. Two broke free, and it took us an hour to catch them. The day was a failure, but it gave me something to write about, and for the first time in a long time, I had the hours, the freedom and the inclination to do so. Words poured out of me like sand from my upturned shoes. I started writing and I didn’t – haven’t – stopped. I write memoir, usually, and it took getting away from my life, transforming it completely, to write about it.
I’m writing my book now, finally. I might even write a postcard, for once, for Manolis.
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, part of a series where writers reflect on the strange, wonderful or just plain-old terrifying things they've done to keep the lights on. To read more like this, click here:
Tim McGuire is a freelance writer from Brisbane. His writing has appeared in The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging, The Weekend Australian and The Courier-Mail. In 2015, he was longlisted for the inaugural Richell Writing Prize for Emerging Writers. Not very often, he tweets from @twfmcguire.