They say your first novel will almost inevitably be semi-autobiographical, and Keith Stuart’s debut is no exception. The father of an autistic son, Stuart has written a book that incorporates some of his own experiences whilst retaining a fictional narrative.
Me: “What do you want for dinner?”
My mother: “Paté.”
Me: “Paté with what?”
My mother: “Paté.”
Me: “You can’t just eat paté out of the jar with a spoon. That’s not dinner.”
My mother, in a whiny voice: “But I want patéeeee…”
Me: “You can have paté if you have salad with it.”
My mother: *huffs* “Fine.”
Naturally, she then left most of the salad, but that made the hamsters happy, so I’m not complaining.
As a child, I was addicted to secrets, both keeping my own and working out what was going on around me.
I had one of these little Filofax things, which came with a cassette (that’s right, I’m old) that talked you through made-up mystery scenarios and tasked you with solving them.
…because I most certainly don’t.
I really want to write something inspiring (or at least interesting) but my brain’s at a stage of tired shutdown that won’t let me do that, so this round-up might be less exciting than the others.
That’s one of the things they don’t tell you about living your dream life: it’s bloody exhausting.
Last night I dreamed that my daughter died.
I went back to the school I used to work at, and my manager from the advertising agency I worked at later was also there. I’d apparently been looking after the team for him while he’d been on holiday and he wanted to catch up about what had happened while he’d been away.
Before our meeting I decided to go for a walk and say hi to everyone. I walked through the door of our office and ended up in the school corridor. I made my way to the library (where I used to work) and found my colleagues there. Elizabeth was cataloguing books and Vivien had brought in a small plant pot filled with mud, which she was playing with absent-mindedly, making a bit of a mess.
We chatted for a while, caught up on what was going on, and Elizabeth told me there was a pile of mail in the main office. I went and picked it up; it was a load of university prospectuses. We used to have a lot of them in the Careers room, which was one of the small rooms off the library (along with the Media room, the Prayer room, the Computer room and the Archives room).
I brought them back to the library and put them in the Careers room, sorting out mail that was addressed to me and holding it back. I said goodbye to Elizabeth and Vivien, and went back down the corridor to the advertising agency. Opening the door, I suddenly realised that my manager and I were supposed to catch up over an hour ago. I rushed to his desk and apologised. He said it was fine, looked at the clock, realised he still had some spare time, and we went into a meeting room to talk. My manager ordered pizza; the girl who delivered it was French, studying history at university. She had long black hair and was very friendly, nattering on at me about how interesting her subject was.
We switched to speaking French and I told her I’d always been interested in history but had never managed to make a career from it. I wished her luck and switched back to speaking English, for my manager’s sake. She looked a bit offended, stood up and left quickly.
My manager and I chatted for a while, mainly about how his family was doing, and then he asked whether there was anything that he should know about what had happened when he’d been away. I said it’d been pretty quiet, and then he realised it was time for him to be in another meeting anyway. “Good to catch up, Scar” he said, standing up and moving toward the door.
I picked up my mail from where I’d left it on the desk and prepared to leave with him. I noticed two things at the top that didn’t look like normal mail: a folded-over piece of notepaper, and an envelope that looked like it’d been addressed by our overall boss. I picked it up and lifted the flap of the envelope. On the inside of the flap, pencilled in capital letters, were the words “[Daughter’s Name] died this morning” followed by a date. I closed the flap and leaned on the desk. My manager looked at me worriedly. “Shouldn’t have opened that one” I said, trying to laugh.
I fled the room as inconspicuously as I could and made my way down the corridor, looking for somewhere I could sit and read the letter undisturbed. I bumped into Vivien, who’d been told that she had to go and help the coal man bring coal to the fireplaces along Corridor A. “Surely that’s the whole reason we have a coal man, though, so that we don’t have to do that?” I asked, linking arms with her as we walked in the same direction. Internally I was marvelling at my ability to seem normal.
We came to a part of the building where a couple of steep stone staircases led down to a well. In the well were entrances to the building’s basement, one of which was a ladies’ toilet. I left Vivien on the higher level and climbed down the stairs.
Someone vacated one of the stalls as I walked in, so I went in after her and sat down on the toilet. The door was a bit flimsy, but I thought it’d do. I unfolded the other sheet of paper first. It was from a guy I hadn’t thought about in ages. He’d had a bit of a thing for me while we were at university; I’d never noticed it, but a couple of friends had pointed it out.
‘I heard the news’, it said. ‘If you need me, I’ll be on a train by the time you read this, but then staying at this address.’ An address in the north of the country was written below, along with a phone number.
I opened the other envelope again and reread the words on the flap. Suddenly the door to the stall burst open and a student who had been walking past looked in in confusion. I asked her to pull the more substantial sliding door across. She looked confused again. Sighing, I pulled up my pants and walked over to the door, noticing when I did that the sliding door wasn’t working. “No problem,” I told her, “Not your fault.”
I picked up my things and went into the next stall, pulling the door across and securing it properly. I sat back down on the toilet lid and pulled the piece of paper out of the envelope again. I began to read it. Suddenly a group of people burst through the wall of the cubicle I was in. There was a large hole I hadn’t noticed when I’d sat down. One of them – a girl I’d been at school with many years ago – grabbed the envelope and paper out of my hand before I could stop her. “This looks interesting,” she said with her characteristic inquisitiveness, “I wonder what it says?” I clutched at it wildly; thinking it was a game, she held it away from me. I grabbed her arm “No, stop, you don’t understand,” I said, and started crying desperately, holding onto her arm with both hands, “It’s bad news. It’s really, really bad news.” She looked apologetic and handed the envelope back. I held onto her and cried. Then I woke up.
Now I know I shouldn’t call Daughter to check she’s alive. It would be irrational. But dreams are strange things and I might have to do it anyway.