Week Six | 1,572 words
Hold Your Horses
We are all in bed, three spoons in order of size. I am cuddled up to my son Izak, eight years old, a skinny little enigma. One minute he is so serious, pulling apart words, phrases and off the cuff remarks with all of the concentration and irritating logic of a practiced lawyer. The next moment he is running, howling for the fun of it, in fits of giggles, blisters of tantrums. The tantrums, thankfully, are pretty few and far between, and are usually the result of me forgetting he is only eight. That direct gaze is deceptive, and lulls me into expecting more of him than is probably fair.
Izak is cuddled up to Abi, my daughter. She is five, a quiet little thing with a cheeky smile. I can see the edges of it creeping around her thumb (I am desperately trying and failing to get her to stop sucking it…) whenever she is happy. If she’s not with me or Izak she becomes a guarded child, watching everyone with a slightly suspicious squint and a tension in her body that I always want to cuddle and soothe out of her. But she has started school now, and I can’t be there every moment to ease the everyday fears away - and if only these were the only fears that Abi has to deal with.
The dreams had started a little over a week ago. There were no changes to routine, to our lifestyles, or to our family dynamic. One night, all of a sudden, she began screaming and couldn’t stop. Her eyes were wide open, her hands clenched and unclenched into tiny fragile fists. She wasn’t awake. I tried desperately to soothe her, whispering calm words that turned into scared shouts. Izak had wandered in, full of sleep and alarm. Abi was sat bolt upright, light from the hallway casting a sharp line of light across her face. I had been trying to pick her up for a few minutes, wondering how she might react, anxious that she might thrash suddenly and do us both an injury. All of a sudden the screaming stopped; she blinked, gulped, and burst into tears. Izak scooped Lady O, Abi’s favourite toy, from the floor, and thrust her into Abi’s lap as I sat down beside her, cuddled her to me, and stroked her hair.
Having delivered Lady O, an elephant whose ear was now being sucked between hiccups and the echoes of sobs, Izak left the room, and came back a minute or two later with a glass of water and Abi’s favourite crazy drinking straw. Having set his sister up with the essentials he gave her a weary smile that made her face crack open into a relieved grin, and went back to bed.
After this it only took one read through of “Mr Magnolia” (an old but firm favourite) to get Abi to snuggle under her covers, clutch Lady O to her chest, and her eyes to flutter closed.
I assumed this nightmarish session had been triggered by something she had inadvertently seen – whether on telly, at school, on the street… It is impossible to blinker your children from everything, good or bad, that the world has to offer. My heart sank the next night when it all started again.
This time it seemed to take forever for her to wake up from the grip of the dream. She shook and moaned, tears leaked from her eyes that were either achingly wide open, or squeezed tightly shut. Once again my voice slid from a calm plea to a desperate insistence that she wake up. When she finally did I am positive it was nothing to do with me. Whatever nightmare had held her had simply decided to let her go. Exhausted and afraid she slumped back into bed whilst I cuddled up, Izak retrieved the elephant and the drink, and none of us had any explanations.
At breakfast the next morning dark circles had appeared under Abi’s eyes. She was pale and exhausted from the physical and emotional toll of the dreams. Izak frowned at her with concern as he spooned Cheerios into his mouth.
“I think we’ll try no telly today,” I said brightly, as if this was an adventurous idea we should all be embracing with enthusiasm. No luck there. Instead Abi gulped and proceeded to cry slow heavy tears into her cereal.
“It’s not the telly,” she whined.
“It can’t hurt to try,” I told her.
“What is it if it’s not the telly?” Izak wanted to know. Abi sniffed at him.
“I don’t know.” She gave me a somewhat baleful look over her bowl, “but it isn’t the television.”
“They’re really bad nightmares, Abi,” I told her, “so we have to try a few things to work out what is triggering them. And if we can’t work it out ourselves we’ll have to see a doctor if they don’t stop.”
This started the tears again. Abi hates our doctor for reasons she is reluctant to share but which she once told Izak had something to do with nose hair.
Izak shrugged. “I bet I can totally do a night without telly. I bet there’s loads of things we can do instead. What did you used to do Mum? In the old days, I mean. Before there was telly?”
I bit back my retort that I was not so old that I pre-dated television, and instead started to list rainy day games I had enjoyed as a child, tried to remember what board games we had mouldering away in the loft, and wondered if I had completely erased the rules to any card games.
That night the television remained black and lifeless. Instead we played music, sang, danced, built a den, played Huff the Donkey – a peculiar card game that no-one outside of our family seems to know – and laughed and talked and laughed some more. Abi was so full of smiles and giggles by the time I put her to bed that I was convinced we had solved this particular problem. How could such a sleepily content child suffer bad dreams?
“Do you think it will work?” Izak asked when I came back downstairs.
“I hope so,” I said.
“It was fun anyway,” he said with a smile, and helped me demolish the den and put the various blankets, table cloths and clothes pegs away.
“Why are they called after horses?” he asked as we gathered the playing cards together.
“Why are what called after horses?”
This was typical of my son – pulling a word apart to try and discern a bigger meaning behind it, some hidden clue into how we communicate, how our language fundamentally worked.
I didn’t have an answer, but any guess I could have given him was interrupted by more screaming from upstairs.
The dent in our confidence was the worst thing. We had had such a lovely evening, had felt so victorious in our battle against whatever it was, and it had made no difference at all.
Izak glared at the nightmare from Abi’s bedroom doorway, and waited for it to pass. It seemed to take forever. He had collected Lady O from the corner of the room, and was hugging her to his chest, scowling at Abi’s pain and fear. His expression vanished in the moment Abi finally wrenched herself awake and collapsed into my arms.
“Mum,” Izak said from the doorway, “can we sleep in your bed tonight?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” I pulled Abi to me, her hot and sodden nightdress clinging to her. “Let’s get you in some clean pyjamas, and then we’re all cuddling up together.” Alarmingly, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice shook. The unusual sight of me about to cry set Abi off again, and Izak abruptly left the room.
“This is no good,” I said to Abi as I pulled her nightie over her head and rummaged in her drawers for clean nightwear, “we’re just going to get you all soggy again.”
“We need TISSUES!” Abi shouted. Abi’s theory about “how to stop crying” consists of shouting the last word of every sentence until you feel better. I had no better ideas, and responded with; “You’re RIGHT! TISSUES!”
And, at last, our sniffy tears turned to sniffy sniggers.
Finally, all wrapped up in clean pyjamas, hair brushed again for good luck, Lady O firmly grasped in both hands, we went to my bedroom. Izak had remade the bed after my hurried exit, and had thoughtfully placed Abi’s glass of water (with the requisite crazy straw) and a box of tissues on the bedside table.
We all climbed in. Me, then Izak, then Abi. We cuddled up. I wished, knowing it would ultimately be a bad idea, that we could do this more often. My little family, all nestled together, comfortable and relaxed as we drifted off to sleep.
Dawn was sliding up to the windows and peering around the curtains when Abi began twitching. She cried out. But Izak cuddled up to her, squeezed her shoulder and whispered “hold your horses” into her ear. Abi sighed, woeful, but calm. I rolled towards them. Izak’s soft curls brushed my cheek and I dropped a soft kiss on his head.
“Hold your horses, Abi,” he whispered, “Hold them back.”