In writing true stories, I’ve often penned about animals I have come to love – Queenie the elephant, Lady, from The Dog on the Tuckerbox, Tertius the gibbon ape, Bob the Railway Dog, Trim – Matthew Flinders’ faithful cat, and Lennie’s pony – Ginger Mick, from To The Bridge.
I’ve met wonderful people like Queenie’s keeper’s grand-daughter; Ed Cooper, who only once met his father’s precious Tertius; and Beryl Ferrier, the little sister of Lennie Gwyther. But this story was different. With this story, I met, knew and loved both Subbie and Graham Salisbury, which made it so much harder. Although I read a couple of earlier versions to Graham, and to Subbie, in his favourite paddock, I was still writing when Graham passed away, and 10 weeks later when Subbie joined him. So, I struggled with those words and how to end their story.
Subbie and his mate was one of those stories I just had to write and it’s probably been my biggest challenge. I’d been keeping my eye on Subbie’s health on and off for a few years. He was having all sorts of struggles – colic, kidney failure and peritonitis, and I wanted to wait until he was well before I proceeded. I knew that Graham was also having big health battles.
On 13 August 2019, I looked up “Salisbury” in the White Pages and rang Graham, asking him if anyone else had enquired about writing a picture book about his beloved horse. The answer was no. I had the privilege of meeting Graham and Subbie a week later. Graham talked, I listened and Subbie listened too.
After that first visit, Graham had an interview on Radio RSN, the racing station, which I tuned to on the way back to Melbourne. I nearly had a fit when I heard Graham saying on air: “It’s so exciting, we’ll do anything to help out the kids, so we are really thrilled that someone would want to do a children’s book on him. A nice lady got in touch with us about doing a book for kids and came up to see us to meet him and get it started.” At this point, I’d done little research, had not written one word, and didn’t have a publisher or an illustrator in mind.
FADED CARROT JUICE
On my second visit Graham talked, I listened and Subbie listened too. I read them draft No. 4 while I fed Subbie carrots. I treasure that draft, which has faded carrot juice dribbled over it.
I kept researching, writing, and working out the best way to write their story, changing structure and points of view over 27 drafts and rewrites. I’d planned to visit schools and the children’s hospice with them both in January 2020, imagining Subbie’s float pulling up in front of my house. But then came Covid, and I had to be content with regular phone conversations with Graham, checking information and grasping important details about this man and his treasured horse. Graham often said: “I hope I go before him. I know I couldn’t live without him.”