by Carter Fell
Chapter III: Crossing The Rubicon
I travelled alone to Scotland the day before my debut as a member, and stayed overnight at a hotel in Mallaig. Too excited to eat, I spent the evening touring the local pubs. At a couple of places, I asked the locals to recommend some islands for me to visit. They told me about Rhum, and Eigg, and Muck, and Coll. I asked if there were any islands beyond that group, and was told that there were dozens, but the ferries only visited the inhabited ones. Despite my dropping some very clumsy hints, including saying that I was quite interested in ponies, I could detect no knowledge of the novelty pony club on Thursday Island.
It was now June, and the weather was typical of early summer, cold and blustery. For the first time, I had a fog-free trip to the island, although I was grateful for my empty stomach. There were two other passengers in the boat, a sallow-skinned individual who said not a word, and a garrulous Canadian who regaled me with tales from the forests of North America. As we were pitched about in the heaving swell, I learned that my new friend ran an adult web site, and more interestingly, that he had run a few marathons. This prompted me to speculate on the endurance of ponygirls, his reply was interesting.
‘When you next see a girl finish a twenty-six mile marathon, just ask yourself how much quicker she could have run under the lash. When you see her pass the finish, and then collapse, ask yourself how much further she could go if she were held upright in a harness, and a determined man whipped her on. That’s an experiment I would like to try one day.’ He leaned back and grinned at me, then he leaned forward to shake my hand. ‘Jeff’s the name.’ he said. ‘And I’m Marty.’ I lied, not because I mistrusted his new-world bonhomie, but because I had become paranoid about revealing my identity to anyone associated with the island.
That day’s dinghy woman, named Stevie, was new to me. She collected pebbles from Jeff and sallow-face, and five big ones in cash from me. Dour and taciturn, she was a skilled and confident boat handler. Despite the violence of the sea, she steered the dinghy straight onto the ramp, a line was thrown aboard, and in no time we were on dry land. Tina met me at the top of the slipway; I thought she was pleased to see me. ‘Welcome to the island, Member.’ she said. I felt stupidly proud, and I probably blushed. She led me up the path, across the oval track, and around the northern end of the ridge. We emerged onto a track, broader than the training oval, but of the same composition. To my left, I could see across scrubby grassland to a tall wire fence, beyond which I could see the dark shapes of buildings.
Tina waved a hand in the general direction of the fence. ‘That’s the compound; all the ponies are kept there. Most of the members are here today, so I haven’t had time to sort your team out. We’ll go and get them now.’ Walking along with Tina, I felt a strong affection for her. It’s very silly for a man in his forties to have that sort of feeling; I just could not help it. I glanced sideways at her, and she gave me a sad smile that almost ripped my heart out. I tried to hold her hand, there was no stopping the soppy teenager in me now, but she shook her head softly.
As we walked along the track, roughly parallel to the fence, there was a swishing on the gravel track behind us. I looked back, to see a rig bearing down on us. It was pulled by four ponygirls, all blondes. Their driver was keeping them at the trot; with their heads erect and their knees lifted high, they looked magnificent. The driver flashed me a smile, I envied him desperately, but was consoled by the thought that I too would soon be travelling in that incomparable style.
The track swung to the left, and then there was a short spur to the compound. Tina punched a sequence into the combination lock on the gate; an unseen motor swung it open. As we stepped in, I realised how big the compound was, at least several hundred yards square.
‘The four large buildings are the stable blocks,’ Tina explained, ‘your ponies are in the nearest, number one.’
As we walked across to the stable, a rig swept through the compound, driven by a tall man I had not seen before. He pulled his team to a halt, and greeted me cheerily. ‘Hello there! I see you’ve got the lovely Tina. I’ve driven her a few times, she’s a smashing pony, but she needs a lot of whip. What do you think of my old nags?’
Indeed, his ponies were not like the pretty things I had seen during my training, these were mature women with sagging breasts and bellies. Their bodies showed the marks of the lash; not as horrific as the scarring I had seen on Tina’s back, but a random collection of blemishes resulting from dozens of minor cuts. Their head hair was crudely cropped, and their body hair was completely untrimmed. All stood with their heads bowed, waiting for command.
‘I’ve seen better.’ I cautiously opined.
He laughed. ‘All roses have to wither, my friend. Step forward ladies!’ And with that, he was off. I turned to Tina, and saw her watching his departure with hatred on her face.
‘Tina,’ I asked, ‘was that man cruel to you?’
‘It is up to a Member how he uses his ponies. Now we must move on.’ She marched across to the stable door, talking as she walked. ‘You also will be using four of the older stock, they are the only ponies in stable at the moment, we have many members on the island today.’
‘How old can you work them to?’ I asked.
‘There’s no fixed limit, but some of the ponies have been in harness for more than twenty years. Remember, they’re usually only worked hard one day a week.’ She entered a combination into a keypad on the doorframe, it bleeped encouragingly at her, and she heaved on the handle.
As the soon as the wide door swung open, I was hit by the smell of women’s bodies. We both entered, leaving the door open. The room was long and narrow, there were low bunks arranged along one side of a central aisle; the other side of the aisle was used as a storage area. There were two rigs parked at an angle, the wall was festooned with brackets, on which were hanging chains, whips, harness traces, spare wheels and rig parts.
‘How many ponies sleep here?’ I asked.
‘There are thirty-two bunks,’ Tina replied, ‘but this stable has only twenty-two ponies. We are expecting a delivery, then I will be very busy.’
The bunks nearest the door were all empty. Tina walked swiftly to the far end of the aisle, to our first pony. This was a middle-aged black woman, who was fastened to her bunk by an ankle chain. Tina made her sit up, then pinioned her wrists behind her back, and fitted her with a collar. She repeated this procedure for our other three ponies, all of them white, all of them middle-aged. Finally, each pony was unlocked from her ankle chain, and the coffle chain was attached to her collar. They stood in a line, their heads bowed, exactly as I had just seen out in the compound.
‘Will you examine them?’ Tina asked. ‘Some members do.’
I shook my head. My mouth was very dry, and I felt slightly light-headed. It was all so unreal to me, now that I had been confronted with forced labour, and chains, and these wretched creatures who were clearly being held in chattel slavery. Like the four I had seen outside, these women had many whip marks, mostly on their upper backs, but also on their breasts and bellies. Could I now use them as motive power, force them to my bidding, and whip them when they displeased me?
Tina led the ponies to one of the rigs. Swiftly and very expertly, she harnessed them to the draw bar, and then fitted their bits. I was standing very close to observe the procedure, and I noticed that the ponies had teeth removed to accommodate the bits. When the harness was complete, Tina removed the coffle chain, and hung it on a wall hook. From the same wall, she selected a driving whip, and then she mounted the rig.
‘Please hold the door for me, Member. I’ll warm them up for you.’
I walked back to the door, as I did so I heard Tina tell the ponies to ‘Walk on now.’ The door was already open, but I held it wide for Tina to bring the rig through. Her steering was very precise, the wheels passed through the doorway with no more than an inch to spare on either side. Tina drove the ponies around in a broad circle for a couple of times at a slow walk, and then she speeded them up a little.
If Tina had any sympathy for her fellow slaves, her driving did not show it. She jerked the reins brutally, and was liberal with the whip, constantly flicking the ponies’ backs with it; when she drove them quickly, I could hear the contact of whipcord and skin. Not for the last time, I was reminded of stories from the days of Negro slavery; it was often said that slaves made the cruellest drivers. Satisfied with the team, she drew them up before me, jerked the handbrake up, and hopped off the rig.
‘They are all yours Member; you have them for two hours, there is a fifty pound fee for every overdue minute. Just bring them back here when you’ve finished, today’s combination is thirty-two forty-five. Please enjoy exploring the island.’ She handed me the whip, I asked her if I was now allowed to use it.
‘Yes Member. You have full whip rights; the rule is above the waist and below the neck. Please remember that if you injure one you may be charged for damage, and if you kill one, you’ll have to pay her full value.’
‘What is their full value, Tina?’
‘For the black, Member, about thirty thousand. A bit less for the others.’
‘And why is the black worth more?’
‘Because there’s less of them here, Member. Supply and demand.’
I climbed aboard, settled on the seat, and released the handbrake. ‘Walk on.’ I said, and the ponies set off. I steered them across the compound, towards the gate. Before passing from her sight, I looked back at Tina. She was watching me; she smiled and waved. I waved back, and a rush of tangled emotions brought tears to my eyes. I was very happy, and very sad; I was excited, and depressed. There was only one certainty; I was in love with that girl.
When I got to the junction with the main track, I turned left, simply because I had seen some of the route in the other direction. In a little way, the track swung to the right, and came very close to the craggy coast. I stopped the rig here, and looked at the sea. About a hundred yards from shore, the surf was breaking over a line of brownish rocks that looked like broken and rotten teeth. They were cruel fangs to destroy boats and lives; doubtless they had done so many times before the advent of navaids. Apart from the homicidal murmur of the sea, I heard no sound but the pounding of my heart. I heaved the handbrake up, and then dismounted. Exploring the island could wait, I thought it was a good time to explore the ponygirls.
Coming up to the right-hand pony, I seized her head in my hands, and forced her face up. With a touch of cosmetics, she would have looked OK. In fact, with a decent hairdo and some smart clothes, she would have been a fine-looking woman. Her eyes averted mine as I fondled her breasts; my hand was moving down her belly when I heard another rig approaching. Guiltily, I leapt back on the rig, released the handbrake, and gave the usual ‘walk on’ command. The ponies seemed to be pulling easily enough on this flat ground; I ordered the trot. Still I could hear the other rig closing on me, and soon it overtook me. The driver was Jeff; he had four superb ponies, all of them younger, taller, and stronger looking than mine. Determined to catch up with him, I whipped my ponies for more speed. I found that I was unable to sting them all with a single lateral stroke, so I lashed them each in turn. The rig accelerated, but Jeff was still pulling away. After a couple of hundred yards, I gave up the chase, and pulled the ponies back to a walk.
There were now pine trees on either side of the track; all was very quiet and tranquil. The sound of the sea had faded; there was just the padding of the ponies’ bare feet on the track. The sight of the angry stripes on the ponies’ backs did not disturb me at all, but I was relieved I had not cut them. My thoughts returned to carnal matters; I was anxious not to be disturbed again, so I drove the rig off the track, into the privacy of the trees. But I suddenly remembered that the ponies were not really dumb beasts, they could betray me to Tina, and I would not have her think ill of me, so I drove back to the track and resumed my tour of the island.
Shortly the trees thinned out, and the track rose steeply. I ordered the trot, and readied myself with the whip. The ponies were unable to maintain the trot all the way up the incline, which I later learned was known as Whipper’s Hill, and I had to lash them to keep them moving at all; this time, I drew blood. After reaching level ground, I stopped the rig to get my bearings. Looking behind me, in a north-easterly direction, I could see across scrubland to the compound. Directly north was the pine wood, and from my vantage point I could see that it was just a thin belt on either side of the track. To the south and east, I could see an area where a number of people were moving about, I could not make out what they were doing. The ground to the front of me was fairly level; essentially the island was on two levels, perhaps two-thirds on the level of the compound, and the remaining portion at my current level.
I drove on a short way, and came to the island’s watering hole, The Gymkhana Bar. There were about twenty rigs on the hard-standing outside the place, all had ponies in harness, and every team had one hobbled pony. Not knowing where to park, I halted the rig and looked around; a woman rushed from the building and spoke to me. ‘Just leave it here, Member. I’ll take care of it.’ We exchanged places, I stood on the ground and watched her drive my rig away, and then I walked to the bar. Throughout my drive, a number of questions had been troubling me. Tina had mentioned that the ponies had a cash value, and that made no sense to me, for who could they be worth anything to? The slipway bugged me too; I did not see how the thousands of tons of materials for the buildings and tracks could have been brought in that way. Money was the nub of my biggest question; suppose there were fifty members, each paying five grand a year, that did not add up to percentage point of what would be needed to finance this place. I needed some answers, and I went into the bar determined to get them.
Chapter IV: Canada Dry
The one thing you definitely expect to see in a bar is a counter top. And possibly I had expected that pretty little things clad in whispy silks and gold chains would staff the bar on a slave island. Two out of two wrong; the bar room contained just a dozen tables, each with four chairs. And the waitresses, who were dressed in conventional blouses and skirts, were as attractive as the finalists in a Ringo Starr look-alike contest. I was feeling lost and out of place, and was grateful to hear Jeff’s voice invite me to his table. ‘Marty! Come and have a beer with me.’ He was alone at a table, and was waving a frothing glass at me.
I pulled out a chair, and sat myself down. ‘Jeff, I have to tell you that Marty is not really my name.’
‘Well guess what, Marty? I know it ain’t, but you might as well keep it for now.’ Jeff leaned back in his seat; his shrewd face seemed amused by me. ‘So how are you getting on, Marty? Now that you’re a pony-driving member and all.’
‘I just don’t know if I’m in heaven or hell, Jeff. It seems like hell for the ponies; I had to whip mine up that hill, God knows what they suffer.’
Jeff nodded sympathetically. ‘It’s tough, isn’t it? But you will get used to it, Marty, and you will see that things are how they have to be. You can only live your own life, and if this is your heaven – and I think it is – then why complain?’ He snapped his fingers, and a waitress appeared, as if by magic. He raised his eyebrows at me enquiringly.
‘I’d like a beer please.’ I looked at the waitress’s blank face, and wondered if she had a family in some long-forgotten past. ‘Yes, Member.’ She said, and disappeared. Jeff took a drink from his glass, leaving a moustache of white foam across his upper lip.
‘But Jeff,’ I said. ‘I don’t think I can justify what I’ve done today, I really don’t.’
‘Marty, my boy,’ he wiped the moustache away with the back of his hand, ‘it’s not my business to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong in this world, you have to decide what is right for you. And you have decided, Marty, haven’t you? When you drove your rig out of the compound, when you took a whip to those ponygirls, you crossed your Rubicon, and you’ll find there’s no turning back. ’
The waitress set my beer down in front of me, and then Jeff continued. ‘Now Marty, I can’t say that I really believe in slavery, but I do love it. I’ve got daughters of my own, and if any sick bastard thought to strip them and whip them, to work them like beasts, I would happily burn him. But here on this island I own six ponygirls, and I’ve heard them all yelp under the driving whip. Contradiction? Hypocrisy? Sure, that’s what life’s all about.’
‘You own them, Jeff? How does that work?’
‘How it works, Marty, is that this island is based on members putting money into ponygirls. If you want to drive a good team, a young team, you have to buy them.’
‘Where would I buy them from, Jeff?’
‘At an auction, there’s one every May and August. When girls are brought to the island, they are auctioned to members. Once you own livestock, you become a partner. With four ponygirls, you’ve got your own private team. Or you can lease them back to the island for general service use, or as public ponies for non-owners such as yourself. Two of mine are on lease-back; one’s on the construction project, the other one is Tina.’
‘Tina!’ I was flabbergasted. ‘I thought Tina was some kind of boss pony.’
‘Sure she is. At the moment. The island leases her from me as a senior pony, you’ve seen the reception type work she does, and she breaks in the new girls. But I can give thirty days notice to have her back, if I want to use her in harness, or sell her.’
‘Would you sell her, Jeff? Would you sell her to me?’
Jeff laughed. ‘Whoa! Steady boy! I think you’ve fallen for my Tina! But I might as well sell her; I’m not likely to use her again. I’m going to be fair to you, give you a chance to cool down. You think about it for a month, and if you still feel the same, I’ll agree to put her in the August auction. I’d like to do you a good deal, but private sales aren’t allowed.’
‘How much will she fetch?’
Jeff was pensive. ‘It depends. Mainly it depends on what else is in the sale; there’s talk of some African girls arriving, if they are young and strong, they’ll attract the big money. Even so, I would expect fifty thousand for Tina, she’s still a classy piece.’
‘Then it’s no good Jeff, there’s no way I could raise that sort of money.’ I was despondent, and fearful that Jeff would sell Tina whether I was bidding or not.
Jeff put his glass down decisively. ‘Marty, you would not have been invited here if you couldn’t afford that sort of money. Do you want to come and look at my team?’
I shook my head gloomily; I just wanted to look at Tina. We chatted for a while, and then I left the bar. When I stepped outside, the woman who had taken my rig escorted me to where it was parked. One of my ponies was hobbled, although I could not imagine where they could have run. The chain was removed, I was wished a pleasant drive, and then I headed back to the compound. There was only half an hour of my two hours left, so I went back the way I had come. I was ten minutes overdue when I arrived at the compound, but Tina just laughed, and told me to forget it. She reached up, and gave me one of the pebble-like tokens that I had seen on the boat. ‘Here,’ She said, ‘You’ll need this for your next drive. You have ten more this year.’ On close examination, it proved to be a smooth wooden lozenge, with an eye engraved on one face.
She seemed very cheerful, but when she noticed the ponies’ backs, her mood shifted a little. I was racked with guilt for what I had done, especially when I realised that I had spots of blood on my trousers, blood that I had whipped from the backs of helpless women. What could Tina think of me now, I wondered, after she had seen that I was the same as the beasts who had scarred her back? My feelings for Tina were tearing me apart, I was sick with worry over her. Who was on the island on every other day than Thursday? Whoever it was, they would have absolute power over the ponies, including Tina.
I tried to strike up a conversation. ‘What happens to the ponies now?’ I asked.
‘I have to put them back in the stable, Member. When all the ponies are back, they’ll be washed, fed, and watered.’
‘Tina, I’d really like to speak to you.’ I was a gawky teenager again, with no idea of how to speak to a girl.
Tina’s smile faded. ‘Please, Member. I am going to be very busy for a few hours.’
‘OK Tina, some other time then.’ I had always backed away at the first rebuff when I was a teenager, and the permissive society had passed me by.
‘Yes, Member. There’s a boat in fifteen minutes; you can be on it if you hurry.’ Women usually know how to dismiss me. I slunk away, and I caught the boat.
My only companion on the trip back to Mallaig was a tiny man, who had a habit of cocking his head from side to side, like a bird. This behaviour perfectly suited his intense dark eyes, and his tufty hair. He observed me for while, as I have seen birds studying potential food on a lawn. I was in no mood for conversation, so I ignored his sparrow-like scrutiny, but eventually he spoke, and suddenly the world was a crazier place.
‘Beware of the Germans.’ His eyes gleamed and his whole face seemed to shine as he awaited my reply.
‘What?’ I was nonplussed.
He repeated it. ‘Beware of the Germans. And the Turtles. You’re a Londoner, aren’t you? It’s a cryptic clue. Do you like crosswords?’
‘No, I don’t. I’m tired, and I’m hungry. Please leave me alone.’ I turned my face away from him, and he fell silent. But I really should have paid attention to the birdman; he was obviously itching to spill the beans about something, and I was too stupid to listen.
End of Part 2