On the night before my eighteenth birthday, Mum told me that her and Dad had lost their first baby. It was a girl, three months premature with a heart full of holes. They buried her, unchristened, in the graveyard of the Presbyterian church and two months later Mum was pregnant with me.
She sat in her chair at the end of my bed and showed me a photo: a bundle of white cloth and the hint of hair around a tiny red face.
‘Why didn’t you say anything before?’ I asked her.
'A lot of reasons. Guilt. I used to think the horse riding had made her come early. I fell a couple of times in the first trimester; we had that bloody draught horse and the thing hated being ridden. It ran me into the shed wall one day, almost broke my arm. I took it easy after that but it still felt like my fault.’
'What was wrong with her?’
'She was just too small. Her heart wasn’t grown properly.’
'So it had nothing to do with the horses.’
She took my hand and held it on her knee. 'I know that now, love. I probably knew it then too, deep down. We weren’t going to try again for a while and then we found out about you and it was like being given another chance. I stopped riding until you were born. It was the hardest thing I ever did, being around them and not being able to ride. But when you were born you were so perfect, I’d have given up horses for the rest of my life just to keep holding you.’
'What about Ryan?’
'What about him?’
'There’s photos of you riding while you were pregnant with him.’
'After you came okay, I gave in. Your Dad and I had a lot of fights over it.’ She squeezed my hand and laughed. 'He used to hide my saddle. Thought that would keep me off them. I just rode bareback until he gave it back. I never told him this but I always knew where he’d put it.’
'I’m not telling you. It’s where I keep your birthday and Christmas presents.’
'I know what you two are like.’
'We’re not kids any more, Mum.’
She backed away from the bed and turned her chair into the doorway. 'No way. It’s a mother’s secret.’
She stopped in the hallway and looked over her shoulder. 'Yeah?’
'Was there some other reason you came in here? Like a birthday speech?’
With a hand against my threshold she smiled. 'I wanted to tell you not to make mistakes because you’re scared. If you and Chloe get married and have kids, don’t let her hide from the horses. It’ll make her miserable and change who she is. Even this,’ she patted the arms of her chair, 'is just part of something bigger. You can’t let the little things take over.’
'I think you’re getting ahead of yourself, Mum.’
'No. You and Chloe are the real thing.’
'What’s the real thing?’
'Open your eyes, love.’