Here's a Christmas-themed story I wrote a few years back. It was for a creative writing competition with the theme of disability. I don't know much about autism, but wanted to have a go at putting the condition at the centre of my story. I shared it with a friend who has an autistic son and was reassured by her response. It also makes a nice change for me to write about a disability other than sight loss. I hope you like it.
My Jack is Joseph
I must have stood for a few seconds outside the school hall, gripping the cold brass door handle and taking deep breaths. For that brief time I was frozen by the fear of what was to come and the certainty that it would all be my fault. Caught in the headlights of public humiliation, I didn’t know whether to enter the hall or turn on my heels and run. Thankfully, one of the other mums came into the lobby and jolted me back into action with a cheery “Morning Mrs Cartwright, here we go again, eh? I hear your Jack’s got a part this year’.
I didn’t have the foggiest whose mum she was, but as usual, the voice was full of familiarity and tinged with sympathy. She, of course, knew my name – everyone seemed to know Mrs Cartwright, the one with the boy in Mrs Brent’s class, the strange lad who keeps colouring in the mortar between bricks, the one who won’t eat his lunch unless there are exactly six knives, six forks and six spoons on the table, the boy who, when the Head tried to help him with his shoelaces, told him to “Fuck off and die”.
I forced my usual tired smile and said “Yes, my Jack is Joseph”, before taking one more deep breath and pulling open the wide wooden door. I quickly found a seat near the front which, to my amazement, the school had remembered to reserve for me. I put this down to an act of self-preservation more than empathetic forethought. After all, if Jack started kicking off they sure as hell didn’t want me stuck in the back row. But it was welcome all the same. It was a sign that they were finally learning to cope with me and Jack. There’d been so many occasions where they had just put him down as ‘too difficult’ to include, ‘too disruptive’ for the other children. It was ‘easier all round’ if he was kept out of most activities – ‘for his own benefit’ they said.
Which is why I had no doubt that the whispered chatter that morning behind me was focused on my Jack, and what on earth the school was thinking of, giving him a major part in the nativity. They’d even been asked not to take photographs of their little angels this year. “Yes” I’d said to the Head, “I know it won’t be popular with the other parents, but don’t you think they’d be even more hacked off if Joseph spent the whole of the nativity imitating a bloody shutter noise.” At which point I remember looking into his tight, weary face and seeing a look of resignation. This was the look that I’d grown accustomed to seeking in other people, especially people in authority. Ever since Jack had been given his Autism diagnosis, I’d spent most of my life wearing people down so that they run out of reasons to say no. So when Mrs Brent had told me that Jack would make a ‘super sheep’ yet again this year I wasted no time in meeting the Head to begin the attrition process. “Why is he in a mainstream school, Mr Wilson?” I demanded to the pale-faced Head as he stroked his forehead, desperately trying to get his brain to think of a way of getting rid of me. Before he could find one I continued, “Not so he can be a sodding sheep every year, Mr Wilson. Let’s face it; his exam results aren’t going to be up to much, are they? So what else can he achieve, Mr Wilson, if he’s always in the background, kept out of the way?” Having fired a couple of my best shots, I’d kept the ‘legal obligations’ argument loaded in the barrel. He was already wounded and by the look on his face I wouldn’t need to finish him off – a submission was on the way.
In the hall, Mr Wilson sat at the piano, flicking nervously through the music and making sure he did not catch my eye. I’d seen from previous years that he found this type of event awkward, so my Jack’s starring role would be doing nothing to calm his nerves. When he rose to welcome us all his voice was dry and stuttering. “I do hope you all enjoy it,” he said, letting himself look at me for the first time. ‘So do I pal’ I thought and shot him a smile that said ‘thank you’.
As the music started, Jack, along with a young-looking Mary and a rather wobbly donkey, marched onto the stage. I held my breath as Jack turned to see the crowded room, full of strange, gawping faces, and I wondered if it would just be too much for him. His eyes danced across the parents until they met mine and then his face relaxed and a broad grin spread across it. Then he did something which I will never forget – it only took a second or two, but I’ve cherished it ever since, like a tiny gemstone. Visibly proud of himself in his costume of old green curtains and tea-towel headgear, he stopped a moment, his bright, hazel eyes fixed on mine and raised a thumb to me. That simple gesture was, to me, a rare moment, a sign that we were in the same place that he knew I was there for him, and that he wanted to reassure me that he was alright.
I keep that little gemstone carefully wrapped and I regularly check that it’s still there. Whenever times are dark or desperate I pull it out again, dust it off and admire its brilliant light. There have been many dark times, when I wondered if we were in the same world, wondered if we would ever have that connection taken for granted by most mums and their kids. Like the time when, without thinking, I told Jack to ‘get his skates on’ or we’d be late for school. He spent the rest of the morning stretched out on the hall floor, screaming for skates which I had binned months ago. I spent the morning in the porch, hat and gloves on, ready to go. I sat, slumped against the porch door, my face against the cold, frosted glass and my tears ran down it like rain on a window. I felt like this was the rest of my life captured in that one place. To one side, through opaque glass, a boy I loved but couldn’t get to because his glass was just so bloody opaque it wouldn’t let me see the true Jack. On the other, a door to the outside world. Between Jack’s sobs I could hear the sound of wind blowing through trees, children playing, people getting on with their normal lives, while I sat, trapped in a small place with doors either side but no obvious way out.
At the end of the play, which went broadly as planned, I was bursting with pride and probably the first to start clapping. I was also the first to stop, as I saw Jack’s familiar distressed frown at the noise. I put my hands over my ears and he followed suit. On the short walk home I held his little hand so tightly he must have thought he was in trouble. “You were brilliant!” I said to him. “Yes,” he said thoughtfully. “But I want to be a sheep next time Mum.”