A walk in the woods

Last week my arduous afternoons consisted of sitting reading a book under the shade of a tree, on the mounting block in a riding school yard while ‘my’ kids, the best in the whole school, had their three-hour riding lesson. It was a tough job, but hey, somebody had to do it.

I don’t ride. Last time I did I ended up in Charing Cross Hospital with concussion, whiplash and third-degree burns, which sounds like a busy day at the circus but was a more mundane reaction to riding while drunk in the sun and not turning left when the horse did. But I was made to ride when I was a kid. I didn’t want to. It was that or elocution lessons. You think I’m joking.

Apparently, I was supposed to be grateful I had riding lessons. Most kids didn’t. And if I didn’t like them, if I didn’t like the feel of soaking wet jeans chafing my legs against a borrowed saddle, if I didn’t like bored horses stepping on me, if I didn’t like getting asthma so that eventually I was allowed to stop when an hour on a horse meant a day in bed, then I was just ungrateful

Every single word of this is true. But last week I discovered that while I still don’t really have any great desire to go riding as opposed to looking good on a horse, I also don’t have asthma, or any allergic reaction to horses, dung, straw, hay or stables. Which came as some considerable and pleasant surprise. Maybe I grew out of it. And maybe it was nothing to do with the horses at all, but no matter. It’s gone. What hadn’t gone was my occasional not hearing people properly, assuming I have and over-reacting in a way that makes Clive Dun’s Corporal Jones look like a study in under-acting.

Teaching English, I’d tried showing them You Tube clips of Jones screaming ‘Don’t Panic!” to reassure them about the exams. I’d tried showing them ‘Allo Allo’s Officer Crabtree, to show the importance of proper pronunciation, but that didn’t work at all.

They didn’t get it. But they were laughing?

“Yes, we were laughing because you were laughing.”

Which was a good lesson in itself, although more for me than them.

The biggest Utterly WHAT Did You Say? came at the stables. We were walking back from the jumps at the end of the lesson when I asked one of the older girls, not the one who rode like a centaur, the gymnast, my favourite.

Nor her mate who rode like an Apache, dark and wild. No. This one was probably about Number Three in the ranks of Carl’s Cavalry. I asked how her ride had been but I wasn’t ready for her answer.

Apparently, her arse was afraid.


She said it again.

In France they call them arses, apparently...
                                    In France they call them arses, apparently…

Where the utter blinking flip did she get phrases like that from? Who’d told her this was an appropriate thing to say? What on earth had given her the idea that this was an acceptable response when her English teacher was asking her a question? Hmm? Well? I’ve got all day. It’s your own time your wasting (Trad. Arr. All Teachers Ever Until They Get A Grip And Stop It).

Which possibly predictably produced instant utter bewilderment. Is it not the right word? But it is?

No, it certainly is not.

But – this is, is it not, my arse? She nodded at the huge four-legged black animal walking amiably next to her.

Well, probably obviously to you, dear reader, but not to me walking down a dusty track in the woods surrounded apparently by arses, it wasn’t what she was saying. Or rather it was, but not what she thought she was saying. Because she was French. And the ‘ash’ sound (no it is NOT, it’s aitch! As in hotel! For heaven’s sake!) isn’t one that comes naturally if you don’t have it in your head. And the vowel sound O comes out as A, too. So when the poor bewildered girl told me about her horse being scared of a jump it sounded as if she was saying something completely different.

Next day’s punishment was reciting the words on the board:

I held the horribly hot hideous horse’s hoof in my hand.

They all did it. For up to ten minutes afterwards. Then it was back to normal. And having to remember that what people say is not always what they mean. Especially when they didn’t say what you thought they said. Just like the time I told them:

Oui, j’adore les chevaux aussi. Mais c’est n’estce pas possible pour a manger le tout chose.

It was in Norway. It would have been rude not to. And like a steak, since you ask.

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