The first memories are good ones. My dad called the smallholding Ronjami (a combination of me and my sisters’ first names). My parents bought a pony, Shatara, who Janah and I shared and a Thoroughbred horse, Queen, for Roneldi. We had three dogs and two cats who regularly had babies. My best memories are of riding my horse and playing with my cats and dogs. Roneldi had a girl cat and I had a boy cat. When the girl cat became pregnant we had their official marriage ceremony, signing their documents and everything. We raised the kittens together, acting as proud cat grandparents. Roneldi showed me how to hold and observe the little rats until they became recognisable kittens. She taught me how to feed the runts of the litter with milk through syringes. We spent hours lying in the grass, having kittens running over our bellies, licking our cheeks, hiding under our arms, curling to sleep in the crook of our necks. And when we sold them, we heaved great sobs of resentment and sadness, for we had named and loved each one of them.
I also packed picnic baskets for my imaginary fairy friends and then disappeared for hours to play with them. I would dream and play with the voices in my head. My mom once told me that, while she tried to encourage Janah and Roneldi to enter competitions and win things, she took one look at me and knew, “This child is not of this world.”
My dad loved sailing and, although he already had a boat which we took out regularly, he decided to sell that one and start building a new one from scratch on our front lawn.
Every day after school Roneldi and I would ride our horses. My mom would make our lunch sandwiches and give them to us through the kitchen window as we groomed our horses, our tack lying on the green front lawn. I fed Shatara Marie Biscuits and chocolate. We would gallop across the muddy hills of our small holding, sometimes sneaking off our helmets. Roneldi, the fearless leader, on her Queen; Shatara and me struggling to keep up. I often landed in a heap on the ground. I was always bandaged, scratched and bruised from some kind of accident. Riding scared me as much as it thrilled me.
Janah and I spent many afternoons in the lounge singing Celine Dion and Spice Girls songs to each other. We harmonised and took our performances very seriously. Roneldi and Janah did not get along.
My parents started fighting at home. My dad had lent my aunt and uncle money and now we could no longer pay our bills. A lot of things were going on but I was too young to comprehend them. I remember my dad sleeping on the couch. I remember my mom sleeping in the spare room. I remember finding bruises on my mom. I remember chairs crashing. One evening the fighting started while I was still in the bath. I was staring at the murky green water. It got cold. I was too scared to get out.
The door opened and it was Roneldi. She grabbed a towel. “Get out!” she told me. I jumped out and she wrapped me in the towel. She took me to her room where Janah was also sitting.
The three of us waited in silence until the fighting stopped.
Roneldi gave me my first book. We were both night owls and struggled to fall asleep. One night she took me into her room where she had a bookshelf filled with books by Joanna Campbell about horses. She gave me a book from the Thoroughbred series and told me I could borrow any of them whenever I wanted to. It took me a while to finish that first book but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I started spending all my money and time on books.
When we moved away from the smallholding, Roneldi withdrew into herself. Our relationship was mostly based around animals and we sold all the animals when my dad went bankrupt and my parents got divorced. We stopped talking. It’s not really like we ever talked when we were busy with the animals, but we understood each other. We didn’t understand each other anymore. She started flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. I was scared of her. She stayed in her room for hours on end. She weighed everything that she ate, including the tomatoes. She barely spoke to any of us. I discovered cigarette butts in the toilet.
When my mom remarried, Roneldi didn’t want to have anything to do with Janah and me. She sat in her tiny, boiling room all day while the rest of us swam in the pool. On January 16, 2003, I was catching up with my two best friends after our holiday in Canada when we got a phone call at home.
Roneldi had been in a car accident. The hospital didn’t give us information on how serious the crash had been, they only said to come as quickly as possible. I didn’t want my two friends to come with to the hospital but they came anyway. I didn’t think it would be serious. I remember Roneldi being carted out of the emergency room in a rush of nurses, doctors and my mother. She didn’t see us. Roneldi was covered in blood and machines and wires and straps poking in and out of her little body.