I used to wonder about their hearts. On rides that went well, when we were so deeply in tune with one another that I felt like her polestar, I wondered how it was that my heart and her heart could beat to two separate tunes. I used to imagine that we were one, that beneath my ribcage a horse’s heart throbbed, driving us onward in a strange sort of dance. I wanted to disappear into her; to be strength and grace and flying hooves.
I am riding again. It is easiest for me to leave the children first thing in the morning, to return home in time for breakfast, so I persuade a local riding school to host a sunrise hack and invite a friend to join me. Alkham Valley at sunrise is beautiful; the fields are golden. Beneath me, the pony’s ears are pricked and her stride is eager. It is silly but when adult-me has a chance to achieve a dream or meet a need that child-me longed for, I try to direct the experience to the ghost of myself that remains. You are safe, I tell the child who sought to escape into ponies. You survived. And horses come back to you.
My sister comes over to see the house. When she takes off her coat, there are breasts she’s never had before and I remember how mine ached, inflating like balloons when I was newly expecting the boys and –
“You’re pregnant,” I gasp and it isn’t a question and my baby sister nods and I’m hugging her and –
I am an aunt. An aunt to a fetus.
In the garden, her boyfriend is charming my children. Olympia swings in his arms again and again, her face upturned to the sun, the joy bubbling in her throat.
They are two little boys in blue uniform, in a sea of small children in blue uniforms, and I am grateful beyond words that these two are mine.
I love them so fiercely that I want to wrap myself around them, to be their womb again. And I understand completely how you can long to wrench the stars from the sky for your children, because they have glanced up to the darkness and observed, wistfully, that they have never seen a star.
We kiss their heads, pull them back toward us to run a hand, quickly, through their hair. I’m not sure that I’m ready to entrust anyone with their care but they barely glance back at us, smiling at their teachers, two little boys with coats to grow into, with book bags and lunch boxes to hang on their pegs.
There has been a miscommunication at the stable; they don’t have a horse for me to ride. The instructor is full of apology, and I offer to sit out and watch – I will learn, I point out, from watching the others. I don’t mind. A lady whom I have never met before is listening; she offers me a ride on her own horse, a show cob. It is an awfully big offer. Her generosity leaves me stunned.
I am not the rider that I was, and my body has forgotten the language. The horse is patient and forgiving, bright and responsive; she wants to please and most of the lesson is engaged in our wordless conversation as I learn how to ask and how to answer. It is the sort of a ride that my teenage self would have scorned – we don’t break trot – but I am giddy and my heart is full. My instructor laughs. “You are going to be dreaming of this all week,” she predicts. She’s not wrong. Toward the end of the ride I find the connection; for a few paces I am a centaur again.
To ride feels like an exorcism; there are ghosts between the saddle and my thighs. But when I meet them I realise that they are sad, lonely children – not the ghouls that I had created in my mind.
Immediately following the group lesson, I have a private lesson booked. She gives me to ride a beautiful, clever little Connemara pony and sets me cantering around the school. When I remember to change legs at X, I am so surprised and impressed with myself that I forget to tell the pony whether to go left or right; he skids to a stop at the wall and I flop across his withers, almost hysterical with laughter.
“You’re not nervous at all,” my instructor remarks. She tells me that most mums are nervous when they return to riding.
But how could I feel nervous on a horse now when horseback was always where I felt safest?
I dream of my dog. Weeks have passed, she is still on the vet’s floor but she is breathing; when I place my hand to her chest, the skin beneath her fur is warm. She awakens, she comes back to me. And she is – my favourite version of her, full of the joy of reunion, all happy cries and snuffling at my damp face.
Sleeping Beauty was always my favourite fairy tale, and Persephone my favourite myth. I know that I am dreaming, and this visit from my girl is brief. But she is so present, so there, so really-real, that I can’t help but keep my eyes closed a little longer and to enjoy a few extra moments with my best friend.
Until we left London, I didn’t know how fog crept; I had never seen it stir, and settle, to steal the orange from the trees. I don’t know where we are, but the pony does; beneath me her footfalls are certain, and resolute. My toes are almost numb and my bones ache; I let my fingers rest on the soft warmth of her withers, I think warming thoughts – hot chocolate stirred with a cinnamon stick, early mornings under the duvet, a lap full of children.
But this discomfort is home, the pony is home – a childhood home. Sometimes it feels as though I have always been here, atop of the horse, a centaur fused by blood and bone and nerve. But mostly I feel like an adult returned to the place she grew up; astonished by how small everything seems, how poorly I fit.
For years I dreamt myself returned to the horse, complete and yet severed, unable to do anything except flop helplessly upon her back. Reality is more dignified, yet I am endlessly frustrated by my own limitations, that when I talk to my body it doesn’t listen. I am not a centaur. I am a middle-aged woman reliving an adolescent dream in a body that isn’t up to its calling.
Still, when we dismount in the yard we are breathless and laughing, making much of our horses, murmuring promises of haynets and rugs. My friend turns to me: “Imagine how good we would have been,” she says, “had we never given it up.”
I want to say, “I didn’t give it up. It was taken from me.”
But I didn’t fight to keep it. I let it go. So I don’t say anything at all, leant against the pony’s shoulder, breathing in her neck.
We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ well before sunrise and they blow out their candles; everybody eats chocolate cake with a Biscoff icing for breakfast.
And if their teachers’ hearts sink when they announce this fact, if the sugar makes my children bounce and squirm in their seats like a litter of puppies all day, then we will never know because nobody says a word.
The boys are learning to ride.
Balthazar, built like an athlete, like a monkey, is uncertain; he wants to chase a ball, he wants to elevate himself higher in the trees, he doesn’t need to escape into any other body. But Lysander finds grace. He likes the soft, snuffling warmth of the horses, he likes to learn, to hold his reins just so, he barely pauses in the many questions he has for the teenage girls who walk beside him to lift one hand in a triumphant wave as he passes me on the side. I try to give them horses as a gift rather than an expectation; I don’t want them to drown beneath my longing to do it again, to start again. So I haven’t taught them to name their scooter the way that I named mine, to break into an ecstatic canter in open spaces. They don’t have books about ponies or small bright-eyed models to rug up in their plastic stables before bedtime each night. Once a week, they ride horses – and when they are competent, if they don’t love the sport, they can stop. We will stop.
I love them more than horses. I love my children more than anything.
Their sisters, Embla and Olympia, plead to ride. I take them to watch their brothers and Embla is wide-eyed, cautious, she lets the horse snuffle her hand only when I hold her close to me. Olympia puts her hand on her hips and summons the half-feral foal from across the field. When we watch the lesson, I have to wrap my arms around her to prevent her from bolting into the horses’ path.
It is so important, I tell myself, to let them follow their own passions. But if they fall in love with my passion, I will be putty in their hands.
I didn’t give up horses. They were taken from me.
But I let them go. I didn’t fight. I saw the relief in my mother’s eyes when I submitted to the sacrifice; by that point, there was little else to cut away. I kept them so close in my mind that it was as though I rode only yesterday; I barely felt the loss until I took up horses again.
My mother is also reclaiming herself. At about the same time as we left London, she joined an art club. And the bulb of talent nestled within her has exploded outward into something that takes my breath away. My sister and I deliver flowers to her home, and then arrive in person to attend her first exhibition. She is externally composed but we can see that she is nervous; she brings ‘nibbles’, which means crisps, and forbids us to eat them in the car. My children’s faces gaze at us from the walls; she has captured them perfectly, their intelligence and their vulnerabilities, their innate goodness and the sense of mischief that we despair and love. She is startled whenever somebody stops to admire them, which they do often. My sister and I insist that she stands beside them, so that we can photograph the artist.
My sister is newly, secretly pregnant with my niece and the room is stiflingly hot, so we leave early and sit in the car. I think about how proud I am of them, the women who raised me and who grew with me.
Once she completes the children, my mother begins on the horses. For so many years we were at loggerheads: her skin under my nails, my hands wrapped in her hair, my sight blurred and my throat raw from screaming. I was troubled-with-a-capital-T and she was the boundary l hurled myself against; I was so afraid to lose control. It took a long time but over the past few years I have learn to let her be my mother, to let myself be mothered. When I confide in her, she is gentle and her advice is sound. She draws me horses.
I would have accepted stick horses, I would have put those on my walls, but my mother is good. She captures everything that I love about the creatures – the strength, the gentle curiosity, the grace – it is all there on the paper, a gift to me.
I am thirty-one years old. I am a mother, a partner, a daughter, a sister.
I’m the owner of a home that we can barely afford, and every morning before sunrise I pull my socks over my hands and let them talk, advising each other about the coming day as my children listen, and laugh, and assure me that they won’t learn a thing at school and that when they grow up they are going to be carrots, wizened apples and plums. When I kiss them, when I rest my face in their hair, they smell of hot buttered toast and I always have to run to the station because one round of hugs and kisses is never enough.
And when I come home at night, my partner and my baby are standing in the window, and I shiver in the darkness for a few extra seconds so that they can wave to me.
I am so bloody lucky.
I thought that adult life would begin the moment that I turned eighteen, or twenty-one, or became a mother. In reality, I’ve spent so much time unpicking bits of myself; cutting away bruises as though I am a piece of fruit, reshaping myself into functional adulthood. I have learnt to like myself: my body that grew and fed my children, arms that held them two at a time, hands that are perfect for walking small people across busy roads.
“You are a good mother,” somebody told me, the other day, and I blinked at them, surprised. I am a protective mother; it makes me fierce. Sometimes I’m not sure who the enemy is that I’m protecting them from.
I felt like a ghost once; I felt hollow, inflated with something that mimicked rage but felt like survival. I was a privileged child but an unhappy one, and sometimes I think that when I grew, the shape of my growth was different to other people – that I grew stunted and bowed, unsure where to find the sun. When my sons were born I wanted so badly to be a good mother, to know, instinctively, how to mother. It didn’t come naturally. I learnt it from books; I mimicked other people until it came.
Pick-up time: they run out of school, into my arms. I let go of their little sisters’ hands to hug them, to hold them tightly and breathe them in and I missed them too. And I can’t get enough of them, these children, who want to know who Cleopatra was and how to spell ‘coffee’ and what would happen if the tide never stopped coming in.
I don’t know when I learned to be an adult. I don’t know when I learned to be a mother. But these days I feel comfortable in both roles, I feel grounded by the weight of responsibility, of love.
And I am learning to ride again; I’m a woman with a centaur’s heart, who has lost her stirrups. I’m imperfect, I will always be imperfect but I’m taking control of my present and future. I’m back on the horse.