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Ride Like the Wind

Alyson Hilbourne

“Come on, Tilly. Horse riding.”

Tilly’s bony face is split in two with her rictus grin and she hoots her joy. She doesn’t know what day it is, so each weekly horse riding comes as a fresh surprise. I scowl as she lets Mum strap her into the wheel chair without the usual bucking and fretting.

“Louise, will you stop pouting and get ready?” Mum glares at me, her face all points and angles. She stands at the door, her coat on, hands on hips. “Stop dragging your feet and come on.”

“I want to go horse riding too,” I whine.

Mum sighs and relaxes for a moment.
“We can’t afford it, love. You know it’s free for Tilly. One day. I promise.”

I trail along the road behind them as Mum pushes Tilly’s chair. Tilly’s eyes are big and she claps her hands as we enter in the gates of the riding school. The volunteers all make a fuss of her.

“Up you come, Tilly,” says a woman, strapping the harness round her. “Up, up and away!”

Tilly giggles as she is swung up on to the little pony she rides each week.

I stare solidly at the ground and scuff the sand with my shoe while Mum wipes a tear from her eye.

Emily and Jason are also riding so Mum sits and chats with their parents. I try hanging around and moaning but Mum turns her back to me, so I wander off to play.

As her pony is led round the ring Tilly beams — rays of happiness streaming from her like sunlight glinting from a window pane. Each time she passes Mum she waves royally, just like the Queen.

“Can’t they go any faster,” sneers Emily’s brother.

“Or jump,” says Jason’s brother, nodding at the poles stacked to one side of the ring. It’s a conversation we have each week.

“When I’m older, I’m going to be a show jumper,” I tell them.

Mum’s laughter wafts over from where she is sitting like a scent carried on the wind. She is gesticulating as she talks and the other mothers’ giggle.

Mum turns when she hears Tilly hooting. The volunteers always finish the session with a trot round the ring. Tilly bounces like a boat on rough sea. She whoops with joy.

The pony stands still as Tilly lifted off and returned to her wheel chair. She is flushed and her smile creases her face.
The volunteers all wave.

“See you next week, Tilly.”

She twists in the chair and waves back.

I glower.

Tilly is calm and placid all evening. She doesn’t wriggle or demand attention and Mum hums to herself as she gets dinner ready. Tilly’s eyes are shining and Mum’s hairclips have slipped out but she doesn’t put them back.

“How many times did you ride round today, Tilly?” Dad asks when we are all seated at the table.

Tilly drops her cutlery with a crash, splashing spaghetti sauce on the table, and holds up a hand and then the other.

“Five, six? That’s my girl.” Dad grins. “Were your friends all there?” He turns to Mum.

This is ridiculous. Tilly doesn’t have any friends, except me perhaps, but we go through this charade after each riding class.

“Emily and her Mum, and Jason and his mother.” Mum smiles and wipes up Tilly’s mess. She doesn’t complain. She’s had a break and people to talk to.

I kick the leg of the table, savouring the pain in my toe. I don’t join in the conversation.

But a few days later I return from school to an empty house. Mum is at the hospital. When she comes home her face is as grey as snow that’s by lying in the road for days and there is no Tilly. The house is quiet.

Mum and Dad take it in turns to be with her, then Gran comes to stay with me and they can visit together. I go to see her one afternoon. She hardly takes up any space in big bed and lies there without protest as the tubes and drips suck the life out of her.

The day after Tilly’s funeral Mum takes me horse riding. There are tears in her eyes as we turn in the gates.

They don’t give me the pony Tilly had but a great big horse. And they don’t help me get on. I have to swing myself up. As the horse lurches forward I wobble and fall.

Lying on the ground in the dusty ring, surprised by the sudden turn of events, I look up at the clouds. One of them is shaped like a pony with a wispy mane. I follow the outline as it rolls across the sky and imagine Tilly riding the frothy cloud pony for eternity. I know she’d be happy.

“Ride, Tilly, ride,” I whisper. “Ride like the wind.”

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