When I was a little girl I had a weak heart. A doctor discovered a murmur back when I was a fat legged baby. I hardly noticed, in those days, that mother and I were alone. She said he told her to keep me from strain – any type.
Things I was not allowed to do included: running, sledging, cycling, going on rollercoasters, swimming, or skating (ice or roller). Aged six I led the life of a Benedictine monk.
Aged seven I became very interested in animals. Barnyard things, like pigs and cows. I thought I might become a country vet, and begged my mother to take me to the urban farm. She said: “I’m sorry, my pet. I just think it’s too dangerous.” She was frightened that an animal might jump out of its house and give me a shock.
Instead, we went to the library. Three times a week after school and first thing in the morning Saturdays. There were no dangers there. I used to read under a map of the world, books piled up around me like hard backed tower blocks.
Much of the library stock was donated by the hospital. They had a lot of books on Biology and Anatomy, all full of pictures and diagrams. A boy drawn with his chest open, revealing the heart inside. Closer, a picture of the heart itself, all four chambers. Red raw and bloody, like fat slabs of meat.
A blood clot can occur in any otherwise healthy body, read one section. That part had photos. Blood clots were black, all of them. The largest had been laid on a white top and placed next to a fifty pence piece to illustrate its size.
It was a good job my mother did not know I read these books. The pictures would have horrified her. Infection! Cholesterol! Tumours! They were better than any horror movie, and best of all, completely factual. Malignant tumours getting fat on healthy cells. Immune disorders that make white blood cells attack one another. It is not the world that is full of terror, I discovered, but one’s own body. If the weak heart doesn’t kill you, I started to say to myself, Any one of these dozen of other completely unexpected disorders could!
And then one Saturday my mother said, “No library today.”
Breath caught in my throat. I had been looking forward to reading the final part of Secondary Conditions of the Pulmonary System. Had she discovered, I wondered, what horror stories I read every day? “Why not?” I asked.
Crouching down, she said: “I’ve made a very special friend, darling. A friend called Terry. He’s coming to visit today, and I want you to be good.” Good! I was always good. “You’ll like him,” she said.
I did not like him. Special Uncle Terry was broad, with a half-bald ginger thatch, and had two boys who didn’t live with him. When he arrived he put a pound coin in my palm and said, “You can occupy yourself for the afternoon, can’t you?”
I said, “I’ll read.” I went upstairs, and he and my mother went to her room.
I was cross about missing out on going to the library. I’d finished reading all of the books I’d checked out, and so I sat with my soft toys about me, playing that each was a real animal, near birth or seriously cancerous, and each in need of my help. “Emergency biopsy!” I shouted at a glass-eyed bear. “You’re too young for the glue factory!” On the adjoining wall, I could hear the sound of furniture moving.
It was too bad that Uncle Terry kept coming to visit. My mother coloured her hair dark, because he liked it that way, and started wearing a pair of gold hoop earrings which he’d bought for her. He brought me and old watch with a cracked strap, and said it was for measuring my heartbeat.
Yet he didn’t come every night. Mother said he was “researching business opportunities” on the nights he wasn’t with us. She used to get skittish. Reading under the duvet I’d hear her pick up the phone, dial, and listen, and silently replace the receiver. I counted eight, nine, ten times a night, some nights.
She was so preoccupied, she hardly noticed what I was doing. The freedom was marvellous. I ran. I jumped. I climbed trees. Nobody told me to be careful.
It was on one of these play-outs that I saw Uncle Terry. I was in the park, high up the weeping willow, when he walked by with two apple cheeked boys who looked very like him, and a woman in impractical high heels. All of them were laughing.
They followed the path around the duck pond, and I caterpillared along the branch to try and keep them in sight. But not having had the practise at holding on, I fell. My friends later said they could almost see stars circling my head as I landed.
My mother was there, in the hospital, when I woke. Clutching my hand, she wailed: “I should have been taking proper care of you.” Her hair was turning mousey where she’d let the roots grow out.
The ward was full of little girls with serious conditions. Over the floor from me was a girl hooked to a drip, her skin paler than ice. “Where’s Uncle Terry?” I asked.
“He isn’t coming,” she said. “I couldn’t get hold of him.” Her voice sounded hollow, like a drainpipe.
The doctor came, with his long fingers and his cold stethoscope. “Tough little thing, aren’t you?” he said. He listened to my heart. “That’s a good heartbeat,” he said. “It nearly made me go deaf in one ear.”
“But her heart …” began my mother.
“Yes, her heart,” he said. “A little irregular. But I wouldn’t worry about that.” He stood up, and his lab coat fell straight around his knees. “I shouldn’t think it would bother her too much.” He patted my hand smartly, and walked away.
She stared after him. Her eyes were like overflowing sinks. “This would never have happened if I’d been watching you,” she said.
My cast was white, fresh, ready to be written on. I wriggled my toes, knowing that if I was a horse, they would have shot me. No farmer wants a shire with a weak leg. “Don’t worry, mum,” I said. “It’ll be fine. It’ll heal just as strong as before.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she said, and her hand closed over mine, with the strength of a blood pressure monitor. “I’m never taking my eyes off you again.”
First published in The Honest Ulsterman in 2014.