I have a bit of a complicated family. I am, effectively, an only child… that is, of my parents’ marriage, although I have three sisters and a brother. In brief, I have an older half-sister by my mother’s first marriage, an older half-brother by an interim relationship she had, and two younger half sisters by my father’s second marriage. So, as you see, an only child…
Although not really… my sister, strictly speaking, half-sister, and I have been as close as any full blooded relationship could make us.
When my parents met, my father was a newly qualified veterinary surgeon, while my mother was working as a receptionist, and living at home and taking some time to think what to do next with her life after the failure of her first marriage that had left her with a little girl. My parents (obviously) hit it off and got married, my father quite pleased with the idea of a bonus daughter. And what does every vet’s daughter need? Why, a pony of course! My father, eager to fit in with the right set, bought my sister a pony, and so it was firmly established that we would be a ‘horsy’ family before I even set foot in this world.
My sister grew up to be a talented horsewoman and soon outgrew her pony… which I inherited. She rode to hounds with my parents (sorry) and came home triumphantly with the fox’s brush and blood on her cheeks. I cried.
These were the glory days of horsemanship and British showjumpers like Harvey Smith and Paddy McMahon were the pin-ups of the day. My sister was the talk of the show jumping circuit on her bay horse, built like a tank that went like a rocket.
I was there to witness a bad fall though, as her horse clipped the top rail of a jump with his hoof and fell…My sister lay, groaning, beneath the felled jump, while the horse scrambled to his feet and galloped away. My mother leapt agilely into the ring and darted towards the horse, screaming:
“My God, Rambler, are you all right?!”
My sister broke her collarbone that time.
My parents spent a lot of time ferrying my sister from one show to the next. I didn’t mind. I was quite happy at home, with my cat, my books and a sweet French girl called Isabelle who my parents paid to look after me – I learned most of my nursery rhymes in French first.
As my sister grew older and technically more responsible, she looked after me while my parents worked, and, as siblings do, we managed some fairly spectacular adventures … and got along together pretty well. The day she let my pony in the kitchen was quite entertaining, as was the day she was stuck up a tree for three hours as the new horse waited below … and I waited inside for my mother to come home and remove the bad-tempered creature.
Mornings after dinner parties – my father was determined to take his place in the social circle – we would sneak down and eat leftovers and have onion fights … the aim of this being to place a piece of raw onion directly in your opponent’s eye and hold it there – by force if necessary, until they start screaming and crying. Being ten years older than me, my sister generally won this.
Then my parents got divorced. I went to boarding school – unwillingly – and my sister moved in with her boyfriend – happily. My father moved in with his mistress – relievedly – and my mother finished her training as a nurse.
The childhood days that seemed like something out of a James Herriot book crossed with a Jilly Cooper novel were over, as our family members essentially went their different ways.
We don’t live far from each other now, my sister and I, and we’ve only just started talking again, after a fall – out lasting more than ten years… She has Fibromyalgia, my sister.
This debilitating disease has sapped her strength and muddied her mind. The girl who met each fall with bravery and got back up again now needs special aids in the house to help her up and downstairs safely. The small sensitive hands that could guide a horse with the lightest touch on the reins are now swollen with Rheumatism.
Yet she recalls each detail of our childhood with laughter, and meets each new challenge with the courage that kept her flying over six foot jumps as I watched safely from the sidelines.
My sister – my friend.