I drove up by myself that evening, towards El Escorial, following the navigator’s instructions onto an unpaved road, behind a series of apparently abandoned warehouses, through a bushy overgrown eucalyptus patch and finally into the horse riding centre.
It was huge, and silent. Eerily silent. I wandered, meeting new horses and avoiding others that looked as if they were having a very very bad day. I looked for signs of human activity but all was quiet except for the shuffling of hoofed animals and the occasional neighing from one building to the next. On meeting an older man shovelling hay onto a wheelbarrow – I hadn’t seen a wheelbarrow in so long! – he told me to wait down there, the man in charge would come back when he had finished his five o’clock walk.
I might have been a bit early.
Slowly, as the minutes trickled by and my hands got dirtier and dirtier from scratching those hard-to-get-to spots behind horses ears and under their chins, people started showing up. They, too, didn’t know where they had to go. It all felt different, somehow. Surreal. Even the sky, bright white with clouds and promising a thick drizzle from the South, and the wind, whispering sporadically in our hair, didn’t do anything to reassure us that we were just twenty kilometres from that huge capital city that we have learnt to call home.
You could see the skyscrapers in the distance, even from there.
Horses started arriving from behind the big white house, and on them other humans. The feeling of strangeness sunk deeper as these stopped where we were gathered and didn’t dismount, looking around, seemingly stunned. I strolled over and asked if they needed help, which they did. While I held their horses they got off then walked away. None of them thanked me. None of them were together.
One man stayed behind.
Who knows how to ride?
The sound clanged and bounced off the walls. Everyone froze. I raised my hand, suddenly nervous. He passed me his horse as I scanned the unknown faces who were staring back at me, blank expressions and straight, unsmiling lips sealed together. He nodded upwards and held the dark horse’s reins as I heaved myself up and settled, then walked around and saw that everyone else had mounted before looking at me again and pointing his chin towards the hills. Without waiting for me to react, the horse turned on itself and walked briskly upwards, the other ones with their humans trailing us.
When we were halfway up the hill, I realised that the man had stayed behind. The horse I was on tossed its head and took me further to the left. I tried going back to our previous route, but nothing I did moved him – I was in his command, as were the others behind me. As we walked into the sunset it hit me – I didn’t know anyone’s name.
And somehow, this was the scariest moment of it all.