Taking Leave “If that’s all for now, then I’ll take my leave,”So easy for her to say when she knows she is leaving us trapped. I watch closely as Christine’s unblinking, serpentine eyes scan the top pages of notes in preparation for departure. Momentarily her gaze flicks towards my shoulder, but it doesn’t rise to meet mine, nor acknowledge the long sausage-shape weight sloping down sullenly at one end of the settee, currently absorbed in the antics of some garish puppets on the children’s channel. Her lips purse as she presses together the stiff covers of her dark notebook. With ostentatious precision she makes sure that all the pieces of paper are tucked trimly inside before she pulls over the elastic strap. As it snaps –thwack!- it is that sound that does it for me. “So you’re just going to go?”She has the decency to frame an apologetic expression. “At the moment, I feel we’ve done all we can.”“Really?” She doesn’t rise to my genuine incredulity, just treats it as sarcasm, and continues levelly.“I’ve exhausted all the resources locally, you’ve got the maximum respite you’re allowed, and as for national sources of charitable funding, well, that’s up to you. Have you searched on the internet?”“Warren has broken the last two computers,”“They have access at the library,”“Warren in a library?” I look at the shredded telephone directory that had only been delivered yesterday. I meant to clear the remains away, but it wasn’t done before Christine came. She follows my gaze.“Well you’ve got a phone, you’ll have to ring round,”“But it’s so difficult when I get on the phone, even if Warren is quiet enough, you need to know who to ask for, what help you could have…” “One of my most successful clients has a saying: The squeaky wheel gets the oil. She knows how to do it; she just keeps asking.”“But that really nice teaching assistant that talked to me after the final exclusion, she said you have to know what services there are available before they give it to you,” “Well there you are then. In that information pack I’ve fetched is a sheet with the number of a helpline on. You could ring them now; you’re not doing anything else, are you?” Her eyes skim judgementally over the dusty layers on my scratched sideboard. Her gaze is so crisp and purposeful it leaves a cleared track of air through the stale, oppressive atmosphere. I trace the route and see what could be achieved: the piles of paper cleared, the mugs washed and put away, the layers of clean but un-ironed clothes moved from clogged chairs. But even though I’m here all day now, the time is usually spent dealing with Warren. Today’s children’s television obsession is given her the wrong impression.“Are you sure the council can’t do more about respite?”“You have the maximum allowance for your son’s condition. Clients such as-” she hesitates at his name. I hate that she’s forgotten it again. A glance as fast as a lizard’s tongue catches at the corner of her notes, “Warren - are only entitled to two hours,”“But two hours isn’t enough! There must be some more help somewhere?”“They investigated that complaint you made,” she glares in my direction, clicks her pen irritably, “but they agreed with me. There’s nothing else.” Another disparaging glance around the room. Christine’s pinched expression is as tightly contained as that notebook, but I can read two conclusions clearly. One that yes, two hours is not enough, to get me sorted would take much longer. But also, written in the lines between her eyes and heard in the light inbreathing of Christine’s delicate nose, is the thought that even if I did somehow obtain more of those precious respite hours, I did not seem to be the sort of person that could do anything worthwhile with them. She’s already forgotten that I had just started a new job. Meanwhile she taps her notebook, pretending to consider,“I thought your Mum was quite helpful?” “She is,” I say defensively, “well, was,” pausing as an image of my exhausted mother springs into my vision. Her shoulders are hunching as she stands alongside Warren at my nephew’s birthday party. Her head nearly reaches his shoulder, as she is turned to him, and her face is as red and contorted as if it has just been slapped. Something has upset him, and her hands are clenching helplessly as she watches him frowning at the little ones. Thankfully with the help of my brother-in-law we got Warren out without actual violence, but I knew we wouldn’t be invited to any more celebrations. Meanwhile Christine is still waiting.“But since Warren’s got...” my eyes dart to the settee, “bigger it’s not so easy. Besides, my dad’s ill, I can’t ask her just now.”For the past four weeks my Dad has spent his days either in bed or in hospital. Really the time has come for me to help Mum out, not to be a continual burden.“Friends?”With the slight inclination of her eyebrows and the tiny lift in the corners of her compressed lips, Christine manages to imply two things. Firstly, that of course I should have great friends who could do such things as care for my high maintenance adolescent for periods of time, and secondly, that she is not expecting any.I do not disappoint. “I do have some good work friends. Some from my old job, that I used to see regularly when Warren was younger, some from the new job, the one at the Medical Centre. But there’s none that I could leave him with. Especially since the ones from the Medical Centre are all aware of why I had to leave so suddenly,” there’s a slight pause as I clear my throat. “The woman from the school was borderline hysterical.” Christine’s gaze drops to my lap and I suddenly realise that the three middle fingers on my right hand are scratching quite harshly at the skin on my left. Instantly I flatten palm on top of its partner in an effort to look calm. “Besides that, erm, unfortunate incident, I know that they all have families of their own that their busy with, or careers,” and money, holidays and real lives I add, mentally.“But you said before that you have a good support network,” She asks this slyly, there’s a tiny glint in her eyes. Instinct warns that agreeing will further reduce any requirement for help in her future assessments, but denying it is also another negative note against my name. Why do I always feel that I am being undermined by her questioning? Why is whatever answer I give always the wrong one?“I meant the women from the parent group we used to have. It’s closed now, but I definitely consider them to be a good support network.”“Great, so why don’t you make some calls?” “But I couldn’t ask them to have him. We’re all in the same boat, that’s the point. That’s why they understand.” Christine’s face closes down. “No friends at all who could help out, then?”“None that I would feel comfortable asking. Besides, the general opinion is that you need professionals for this,” And strong ones at that, I think.“But you’re not professional,” Again that double thrust, cleverly taking away the force of my argument, and reminding us both that she is the only professional in the room. She folds her manicured hands around the notes, patting her palms against them. Any second now she will stand up.“What if he was on drugs?” I ask quickly. Christine’s gaze expands. Swiftly she looks at Warren with fresh interest. “Is he on drugs? Do you suspect?” Her voice rises in sudden enthusiasm, and she slides the elastic off the notebook in anticipation.“No, of course not!” My sentence slices the air in angry defence. “I’m saying it hypothetically!” She glares at me for a moment, then starts scribbling furiously. But her agitated writing gives me an idea. I lean forward. Instantly, even before I speak, she leans back. It’s as though we’re fencing.“So if he was taking drugs, would I get extra help?”“But is he?” Christine looks up, her stare evaluating, her pen hovering. For a moment I consider pretending he might be. I love Warren, and I don’t want to tar him with yet another brush, but I am so at my wit’s end with him, I’m willing to consider anything. If we’ve exhausted all the proper possibilities, maybe this outright lie might work, at least for a while. I look at my son and ponder. He hasn’t moved at all in the last twenty minutes, despite this conversation an arm’s length away. He hasn’t even turned round. I might well be able to pretend he was drugged. As Christine watches me chewing my lip, trying to decide, some insight flashes across her face.“I could take a hair sample for analysis, that would remove all doubt.” Stalled again. This time by her indisputable reliance on science and facts. Good parry, I think, with grudging admiration, and sigh.“No, he’s definitely not on drugs. Where would he get them from? I never let him out of my sight.” I sigh again, sucking up fresh air quickly, hoping to quell the rising emotion as I try to explain. “That’s my point, Christine. That’s why I need the respite,” Respite – need- the words sound like a whine to us both. She rallies, jabs with point after point.“Surely it’s not that bad! Besides, it’s time he was learning his independence. What exactly is it that you have concerns about? What exactly is the problem with Warren?”She says this brightly, and quite loud. Yet she must know I can’t go into details when he’s sitting just feet away. Cow.But I have to try. So my mouth opens and closes far more than usual in its faltering attempt to articulate diplomatically. “Say, for instance, he travelled on public transport on his own, or with his, ahem, friends,” I pause after that word, wondering whom I am thinking of. Ever-observant Christine assesses my face and again presses the pen to her paper. The script appears like an indictment. I try again.“Say someone was noisy…if I wasn’t there to calm him, well, I’m not sure what would happen.”“But you think something might?” she pronounces the word as though it has a sharp point. For additional emphasis she aims her gaze towards Warren, who is still sitting immobile, now transfixed by a brightly suited man twisting pipecleaners. Chewing my lower lip, I recall the volatile reaction which flared an hour ago over the way I had cut his toast. Somewhere down behind the book case are the remains of the plate, and two jam-daubed triangles. “He has these episodes. Extreme! He, erm, screams sometime. If you saw him then, it’s like an eruption-” My voice is becoming higher. Christine’s gaze returns to me, and her expression is as stony and implacable as a huge, solid, concrete dam. It is effective enough to silence me, and she takes her turn to speak. “But obviously much of the time he is placid and settled, like he is now, and has been all this half-hour. It’s very hard for me to see him as any other way, when this is all I’ve seen,”“Yes, I understand…” my voice is as flat as a plastic bag floating on a pond. Folding my arms across my chest, my left hand squeezes and I wince as it catches a tender area on the back of my right arm. Gingerly I lift the sleeve of my top and find dark marks on the underside. An aubergine bruise is gradually appearing, legacy of an hour ago, where I tried to restrain Warren from smashing the last unbroken plates. Christine is watching me, but she isn’t making notes. I pull my sleeve down, cover it. Hard to add that kind of incident to a report about your own son.“Right then, so I think we’ve covered everything,” Christine begins, and the elastic slides back onto her notebook once more. At least it doesn’t snap this time. Yet I don’t want to give up what I somehow know will be my last ever chance to ask her for help.“But say, if something did happen, say if he was a young offender, then would I get help?”“What sort of help?”“You know, support? Professional back up? I read in the paper that sometimes these young offenders with difficulties get free holidays?” I glance at the back of Warren’s head, briefly imagining him on a beach somewhere hot. All his Dad and I ever wanted to do was to travel. We’d stand on that massive bridge, watching the shipping, and planning. Until I got Warren, and things changed. Poor Warren. He’s never been abroad. Lately, he’s barely even been out of this room.“That’s all media hype. Anyway, he’s not a young offender, so you’ve no need to worry,”“But I am worried. He’s only on the straight and narrow because I spend all my time caring for him. But I’m failing, Christine, some days I. . . I just can’t cope!” Despite my best efforts, I start to cry. Instantly her face closes like a clasp. This time Warren turns round. His face tries to interpret mine, until a catchphrase from the TV twists his attention back again. Christine is staring at me, pen poised. If she labels me as depressed on the file, they’ll send me down to the Doctors for medication. That way they can tick-box illness instead of trying to make any actual changes for Warren. Quickly I mop my tears, blowing my nose emphatically, muttering as brightly as I can about having allergies.Christine just sighs.“You know if you really can’t cope then we can talk again about having him taken into care.”“So he’ll be drugged or brutalised, or worse?”“I suspect you have been given some strong opinions at that parent support group you go to,”“Went to. Like I said, it’s closed now. Council cutbacks.”“The council have to be realistic in what they can do, and you have to be realistic too. There are plenty of perfectly acceptable care institutions across the country. He could go as a resident, then you could go back to work.”“You’re not a mother, are you?”She presses her lips mute as she bends to retrieve her red designer handbag from where she’d tucked it, out of sight. Inside, my unspoken hopes are rising like river waters threatening to burst banks. I will them to subside, but they flood my throat, so instead of speaking, I reach out to touch her forearm. Three petitioning fingers pressing her soft, tanned skin. Speedily she stands tall so that my hand falls. Her movement leaves a minuscule vapour trail of perfume hanging like a thread through the stagnant air.“Try the helpline.” She says briskly, looking down at me with a pinched expression of distaste, her right arm automatically shielding the shiny patent leather of her handbag, “and if there’s anything different to tell us, get in touch. You’ve got the number of the office.”She swivels round, carried out on a current of righteous indignation. I jump up to follow her, so that I can see to the door. As we go through the flat’s dark hall, my attention is caught by the bright red bulge of her handbag emerging from under her arm. It reminds me of one of our last days as a family, when Dan and I had taken eighteen-month-old Warren to the park with his small red football. Dan had kicked it a little too hard, and it had shot into the river beyond the playing fields. He had dashed after it, and I had picked up Warren and run too, but we only arrived in time to see a tiny red hemisphere bobbing away from us, carried along by the perpetual flow. Warren had become hysterical, hitting and kicking in his frustration that his toy was gone. I had been unable to hold him, so Dan had taken over. Warren had promptly started thrusting against him instead. It had taken the rest of the day to calm our son. Soon after that Daddy was gone.I slide open the bolts and release our guest. The stench is the usual one of tangy urine under a weighty odour of grease and fag ends. Old pie foils and chip wrappers lie discarded in the stairwell. Everything out here is slightly tacky with the combination of grease, smoke and dust. As Christine reaches out for the handrail she remembers just in time. Cradling her handbag so that it becomes even more reminiscent of that long lost ball, she flows down the stairs, and away. I slide the bolts, lock the door, and hide the key in the kitchen, behind a packet of muesli. Warren won’t touch the stuff, can’t stand the texture, so I know he won’t find it there. Imprisoned again, I go back to the settee, chewing my nails. A metallic taste from the keys irritates the tip of my tongue as my son and I sit staring in silence at the screen. Though my eyes are fixed, my mind travels, bringing back memories as souvenirs. I remember my energy when he was younger and the diagnosis was still fresh. Then his aggression, and my anger, had been easily channelled into action. There was that fabulous support group. The joy of meeting other parents whose lives were reflections of my own. At first it was liberating. While the toddlers tussled on playmats with sacks of donated toys, we bonded together over discussions. In voices made higher by enthusiasm, we debated the questions about diet, and behaviour, and progress, and lamented the same daily frustrations. For a time we’d become quite proactive, doing daring things like taking the kids swimming, and approaching the schools with talk of special needs and IEP’s. Back then Heads were keen to be inclusive if it meant extra funding. But funding changes according to politics. Since then, sources for the group had dried up, and it had been forced to close. Sure we had phone numbers, but there wasn’t the same focus. Now my life was a dry plain rapidly becoming bereft of real communication.Warren lifts his shaggy head and peers towards me, though without managing the eye contact we are aiming for. From the thickened ridges on his forehead, I detect a tension in his expression which means he has indeed been listening.“She gone?” “Yes, love, she’s gone. Are you okay?” “You okay?” He repeats, looking blankly at my eyebrow. “I’ve just got to make a phone call, is that alright?” He looks as if he is going to object but just then the theme tune for Fireman Sam begins and his head swivels back. Inwardly I cringe, but say nothing. It’s worth it if it keeps him quiet for five minutes. Reluctantly I locate the pack Christine left for me and pick out the poor-quality sheet, spidery with numerous copying, which holds the number of the helpline; it emanates the despair of the parents who are faced with it. My call is answered by an apologetic, script-reading female – but not even a real one, just a message loop. There follows an infuriating instrumental of Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’. I keep expecting the reassurance of ‘sail away, sail away’ but it doesn’t come, and the notes soon discombobulate into a strange, gravelly distortion – as though a spade is shovelling pebbles on a stony beach. Each passing minute grates.But Fireman Sam is upbeat,“I’ve got the best job in the world,” he proudly announces. For the millionth useless time I allow my mind to flit towards what might have been.Fifteen minutes pass; thank God it’s a freephone number. A second or third episode of Fireman Sam begins. Idly, I compare the hair colour of fatherless ‘Naughty’ Norman with Perfect ‘Uncle’ Sam: perfect match. Git.Twenty two minutes.Warren is getting fidgety, his drink is teetering on the settee’s arm. Just as flawless Fireman Sam leans over to ruffle Norman’s hair so does Warren lurch forward with excitement. I lean to grab the glass, miss, and realise I’ve pressed the off button on the phone.“Damn!”“Damn!” Warren echoes gleefully, thwacking the word like someone belly-flopping water.Damn! The school hates any sort of ‘bad language’. I’d been hoping to keep him on track in case by some miracle they ever allowed him back. Quickly I grab a tee shirt from the heap of washing, and start dabbing, meanwhile I am babbling the best attempt at an inoffensive explanation:“A Dam contains lots of water. Sometimes it’s so full it’s nearly overflowing,” Associated words rise swiftly to the surface: welling, flooding, tears, emotion, “Water like goes under a bridge?”“Yes! Would you like to see a big bridge?” Even as I speak, I realise it’s a stupid idea but he’s immediately excited so I can’t retract. As his hands agitate, they start flapping like a duck taking off from a river. I think: at least it will get us out of this place. My hands are shaking as I do the locks, the double bolts, the slide, the twist. Then we’re in the stairwell. Catching at his hands to stop him sliding them down the handrail. Catching at his sleeve as he bolts outside. Catching at his hood to stop him running in the road.We walk. It’s a long way, but I can’t face the bus journey with its claustrophobic atmosphere and suffocating attention from the other passengers. People stare, they can’t help it, some of his comments, his size. One day the driver didn’t believe he was twelve,“Got any proof?” he challenged, “When’s your birthdate, sonny?” Warren wouldn’t answer, nor look him in the eyes. The bus driver took that as guilt. “He’s never twelve,” he said, “Seven in his head,” I muttered, but paid full.The journey is excruciating. He’s too cumbersome for rushing so we stop every time his attention is drawn by anything. An insect creeping up a stone wall; an ant, manically preoccupied with its tiny existence. When he stoops I see again the tousled hair of my toddler son, at that age apparently normal. I hover over him as though I am treading water, watching, waiting, as serene as a swan gliding down a river. But underneath, my innards are in turmoil, as though the swan’s thick, webbed feet are paddling right through them. I’m remembering the hours spent like this, the days fighting the pull down to the depths I did not want us to sink to. I thought we were going nowhere, but now I realise we’ve been drifting downstream for a very long time. A couple approach us, accompanied by their riving spaniel. They smile, but as they pass the dog pushes its nose against Warren’s thigh and sniffs. Instantly he lashes out. The dog yelps in outrage, quickly echoed by its owners. I try to apologise, but they start yelling, wielding harsh accusations that smart like slaps.“That wants sorting out.” “Bit of discipline.” “Get my hands on him.” Warren is gathering himself for a fight. I’m leaning backwards, trying to hold him back. The wife starts tugging at her husband’s sleeve. The man’s anger provokes him, but one long look at Warren’s expression and he is easily curtailed to his wife’s entreaties. Not so Warren to mine. His testosterone fuelled muscles are tensing. In recent weeks, his strength has increased. It’s touch and go whether I’ll succeed, until the couple start to retreat.As they move away, I’m still heaving at my son’s arm, struggling to move him in the opposite direction. Hauling at his coat, pulling him onwards, I’m inhaling his strong male scent, the odorous onset of puberty, and that smell gives me certainty about the direction we are heading. At last we turn the corner and see the heaven high towers of the bridge. My relief is as wide as its stretching expanse. The suspension is so colossal that even though we are within sight, there is still some distance to go, but anger and misery have been replaced by a steady current of excitement. Warren’s face is transforming all the time we are walking. I am hurrying to keep pace. By the time we ascend the steps, we are as exhilarated as white water rapids boisterously skimming rocks and stones. As we take our first steps along the bridge, Warren is alternately grinning, gesturing, and flapping with delight each time he spots something different.For a brief instant, everything feels right. It is as though we have come full circle, for here is where we have our beginning, in long romantic walks with his father. Throughout our amble to the mid-point, I unravel our history, pouring the words over Warren as though I am anointing him. With exuberance, I describe his parents watching the shipping for hours, speculating on the boats’ origins and destinations, fascinated by the course of the water beneath our feet. I explain how his Daddy wove magic into my mind, telling me how each molecule could go anywhere in the world, and become a part of any living being, depending on how it entered the water supply or the food chain. Trying to comprehend the eternal circulation still makes me dizzy now. Finally, in a last two minutes of silence, I mourn the remembrance of the lost lovers, picture them dreaming of the days ahead, holding hands as they promise: “We’ll bring our children here, one day,”Warren’s condition is the death of him, and in the death of him, it is his salvation. For his lack of awareness means that he will never understand what will happen when I take his arm and assist him over that hard, man-made barrier. When I climb over myself, and stand alongside him, he voluntarily reaches for my hand. Not in fear, or to try to stop me, but only in the fun of hovering together over that sparkling, slick river, with all the freedom of air beneath us. I drop the flat keys first, we watch them disappear, and he looks at me properly, for the first time. A real grin with our eyes meeting. Then his grasp tightens, warmly- not to hurt- and he’s still smiling as he leads us forward. Just like any loving son moving onwards with his Mum.
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