IT HAD been badly treated, that horse. You could tell by the way it stood in the far corner of the paddock, shunning human contact, too skittish for a bridle. Probably only good for the knackery, to be honest, but this is an animal that got lucky three times.
First, it was bought recently by a sympathetic woman who put it out to graze in the faint hope it might recover. Second, that paddock just happened to be next door to the home of pianist David Helfgott at Bellingen, New South Wales. And third, most unusually, David and his wife, Gillian, happened to be home for five weeks between his relentless concert tours.
Every morning the man with the runaway mind would stand quietly by the fence. ''You would hear him there,'' says Gillian, ''calling it 'darling', saying hello, and slowly, day by day, the horse came farther down the paddock. At the end of the month, David was patting it and giving it carrots. The woman came to see me and said: 'Gillian, David is a horse whisperer, he has healed that animal.' It's not in the paddock any more, the new owners can ride it now.''
Gillian Helfgott, the woman with one of Australia's most unusual husbands, has just turned 80 but is fit and bright-eyed. She and David are due in Melbourne for his concert on Wednesday at the reopened Hamer Hall, the scene of earlier triumphs for this unlikely musical star.
It is a wonderful love story - divorcee Gillian Murray visits friends in Perth 28 years ago and a bare-chested Helfgott, dripping wet from a swimming pool, rushes up to wrap this stranger in one of his trademark hugs. That was in 1984 and, says Gillian, he still does it. ''Straight out of the bath to give me a hug,'' she says in amusement.
Gillian did a TV interview recently to promote the concert. The station make-up girl asked: ''Does it worry you, him hugging all those women?'' Of course it doesn't, she said, that is just her David, the hyperactive innocent so brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the movie Shine.
David is 65 now and no one has been able to pinpoint the condition that drives him to such bewildering behaviour but Gillian says that time is gradually curbing the excesses. ''He's far more aware of everything,'' she says. ''For example, he'll ask me if I realise I've left the oven on. And he'll tidy the kitchen - never did that before.'' That is not to say domestic life at the Helfgotts' is becoming dull. Far from it.
''He has just learnt how to operate the heating,'' says Gillian.
''I have it on 22 but, when I go out, he turns it right up to 28. It's like walking into a sauna. And his latest trick is to practise until two in the morning, then wake me up to say how well it went.''
The extraordinarily tolerant Gillian has recently built a ''quiet place'' 80 metres from the house where, if she is lucky, she may grab a few peaceful moments away from the human whirlwind to read her pile of books - a biography of Adele and Fred Astaire, Christopher Plummer's autobiography, and many more.
Overshadowed by David's global fame (he will be touring China at Christmas), Gillian has often been cast simply as a ''minder'', but this mother of two from an earlier marriage has considerable expertise of her own - including in the seemingly unlikely field of astrology. She is about to publish a book on numerology, The Insightful Turtle.
''You put the numbers around the shape of the turtle,'' she says. ''It's the first book of its type to discusses the power of the zero.''
In fact, she says her astrologer pals foresaw her meeting with David many years ago.
''I knew someone significant was going to appear,'' she says, ''but he came in a different package than I expected.''
David Helfgott Plays the Shine Concerto is at Hamer Hall on Wednesday.