Blood, they say, is thicker than water. Maybe so. Sometimes, though, the thinner, more watery relationships can show a surprising strength and tenacity. Ours has.
Wondering what might have happened if… is a fairly pointless occupation, but I do sometimes find myself considering how my life and William’s would have been, had he not, at the tender age of six, joined the class I was teaching and had his mother not, almost immediately after that, developed breast cancer and slowly and sadly passed over just a few years later.
Regardless of what might have been, those things all happened. I believe that’s the way all three of us – at soul level – planned it.
I was destined to devote many years of my working life to helping children with speech and language difficulties and autistic spectrum perception communicate with the rest of us, and many more years helping this one boy in particular.
William was a child with a formidable intellect, an enhanced sensitivity which made ‘normal’ sounds, tastes or smells virtually unbearable, a gift for strategy bordering on brilliance (he was the school chess champion at 7, thrashing talented 11-year-old opponents – and me! – with consummate ease), marked telepathic skills, a smile that would melt the hardest heart and hardly any comprehensible spoken language. While he would spend endless hours contemplating life, the universe and everything, watching Star Trek and devising codes and cyphers, he was totally baffled by everyday life and found other children particularly puzzling. He couldn’t read facial expressions or tones of voice. He could follow only the simplest of verbal instructions and idioms or sarcasm threw him into a meltdown.
I was fascinated – totally hooked – by this intriguing little kid, long before the tragedies in his life threw us together.
I did my best. I befriended and supported his mum, did what I could to help the family – taking the children out to give the parents some time together or sitting with the mum so that Dad and the boys could have some afternoons doing normal family stuff together. My head teacher came and read stories to the class once a week, so that I could give William some individual time to draw pictures, talk through his fears, his nightmares, his frustrations and fury. A strong bond started to form between us. Inasmuch as he could trust anyone in those days when his world was falling apart, he trusted me.
Later I’d visit his mum at the hospice. We talked through what was to come and she begged me to stay in touch with him and keep caring and helping him after she’d gone and after he’d left my class. I promised.
Caring was never a problem. Helping often was. There were times in the years that followed when we got along amazingly well together. We shared many interests – chess, train journeys, a fascination with cosmology, time travel, past lives and the like. There were times when he retreated totally and refused to speak to me. There were times when he wanted to talk on the phone for hours every night. There were dodgy mates and dangerous situations. Adolescence is something of a tightrope for even the most well-adjusted boy. Add in difficulties reading social situations and hidden motives, family rifts (he didn’t get along well with his new step-mother), childhood trauma and residual speech difficulties and you have a drug-pusher’s dream client, a bully’s perfect victim and someone guaranteed to swell the coffers of the local off-licence.
I carried on doing my best. I made it plain that I’d be there, whatever happened, and somehow – even when I’d more or less given up all hope – he’d eventually drift back into my life, start to share his amazing and original ideas with me again, and I would keep them safe. There would be strange predictions about the future, diagrams of the cosmos, theories about anything from life after death to interdimensional portals. I kept them in old journals, on scraps of paper and in all manner of files on my hard drive. It felt important.
What happened to William, and all those words, will follow.
To be continued.