Walk With Me

A step­dad fol­lows his in­stincts in this emo­tional short story by Wendy Clarke.

The People's Friend Special - - FICTION -

DANNY’S just come home from school and it’s clear from his face that he’s had a bad day. My wife, Ellen, has seen it, too.

“Danny, sit down for a while. Have a cup of tea.”

Ig­nor­ing her, Danny takes the stairs two at a time, ruck­sack still on his back, and even­tu­ally we hear the in­evitable mu­sic. The heavy beat of the bass through his speak­ers.

Ellen mashes a teabag against the side of a mug.

“Why can’t he play some­thing else? I swear I’ll scream if I hear it one more time.”

But she won’t, and nei­ther will I – even though Danny’s been lis­ten­ing to the same al­bum for the last six months.

“He’s not had a good day, then.” It’s a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion as I’m get­ting used to read­ing the signs.

On good days, Danny will hang his ruck­sack on the sec­ond hook from the left in­side the front door, then sit at the ta­ble and eat a sand­wich: white bread, no but­ter and some Mar­mite.

I let my wife make it, as the last time I tried, Danny re­warded my ef­forts by throw­ing it across the room. Ellen told me later it was be­cause I’d cut the sand­wich into tri­an­gles in­stead of rec­tan­gles.

She puts a mug of tea in front of me.

“Maybe I should go up.” The track fin­ishes, to be re­placed by the creak of the rock­ing chair we bought Danny for Christ­mas to help him re­lax.

Ellen holds her breath and I’m won­der­ing if she’s re­mem­ber­ing those nights when Danny was a baby in his cot. How he would stand with his hands clasped around the bars and rock back and forth un­til she’d go in to him.

She only told me this a few months ago. She likes to drip-feed me in­for­ma­tion. She’s scared that too much at one time might freak me out and send me run­ning for the door like Danny’s fa­ther.

“Let’s leave him for a bit.” I pull Ellen to me. “It’s bound to take him a while to ad­just. A new school; a new house. Things will get bet­ter.”

Even as I’m speak­ing, I’m won­der­ing if we’ve done the right thing in mov­ing. Won­der­ing what pos­sessed us to ex­pect a teenager who hates the small­est change to be able to cope with so many new things.

The mu­sic comes again; the bass repet­i­tive. The rock­ing be­comes manic.

It’s a sound at odds with the peace­ful view out­side the kitchen win­dow. The place of my child­hood, with its wide-open sky and an ever-chang­ing sea wash­ing at the stretch of sand.

I’d thought it a good idea to move Danny from the large com­pre­hen­sive where his needs were barely met, and away from the flat he and his mother had shared since the di­vorce, its small bed­rooms over­look­ing a neon-lit street that kept Danny awake at night.

I look down at my hands. “I wish there was more I could do to make it bet­ter for him.”

Ellen sits next to me. She looks how I feel. Tired.

Even when Danny is at school, or in his room, we worry about him. We won­der how he’ll cope with ado­les­cence when the world is al­ready so con­fus­ing for him.

“You don’t need to do any­thing,” Ellen says, reach­ing for my hand. “It’s enough that you’re here. I still can’t be­lieve you wanted to marry me.”

“How could I not marry you, when you are the most kind, gen­er­ous and lovely woman I’ve ever known?” She looks away.

“Yes, but there’s Danny.” “Danny’s your son and I love him, too.”

“Even when he gets so frus­trated that he throws things? Or when he won’t speak to you for weeks?” I squeeze her hand.

“Even then. I’m not like Danny’s fa­ther. I’m in this for the long haul.”

As soon as the words are out, I feel guilty. What right have I to be judge and jury on a man I’ve never met?

It can’t have been easy bring­ing up a child with autism. I shouldn’t blame him for iso­lat­ing him­self from the mar­riage, work­ing longer and longer hours un­til, even­tu­ally, he left.

But I do.

There’s a noise on the

I need to bond with Danny, but is this the right way to do it?

stairs and we both look up. Danny’s stand­ing in the door­way. He’s changed out of his school uni­form but he looks ag­i­tated.

On a whim, I jump up, grab­bing my coat from the hook.

“I’m go­ing to the beach, Danny. Join me if you like.”

I doubt he’ll come, and I know bet­ter than to in­sist, but I know that when I’m anx­ious or bad-tem­pered, the beach is a salve. I sit on the rocks and watch waves wash into the rock­pools, let­ting the wor­ries wash away with the tide.

Open­ing the door, I step out into our front gar­den.

Danny’s watch­ing me from the hall­way, but as I get to the gate, I see he’s fol­lowed me out.

The hood of his sweat­shirt is pulled over his head and his shoul­ders are hunched. He re­minds me of my­self at that age – un­sure of him­self, yet an­gry with the world.

We walk to the beach in si­lence, but that’s noth­ing new. Danny has never been one for small talk, re­serv­ing his en­thu­si­as­tic mono­logues about his lat­est in­ter­est for his mother.

I con­sider ask­ing him about his day, but he won’t an­swer my ques­tions. His hands are stuffed into the pock­ets of his sweat­shirt, his clenched fists show­ing through the ma­te­rial like small boul­ders.

As he walks, he stares ahead, his face closed.

“When I was your age, Dan, I used to come here with my dad.” I point to the seaweed-cov­ered rocks that tum­ble into the sea. “We fished from those rocks and if I had a prob­lem, after a few hours with a line, it never seemed so bad.”

I glance at Danny’s face, but it’s im­pas­sive and I won­der if he’s even been lis­ten­ing. I want to make this work so much but I’m not sure how.

Be­ing a step­dad was never go­ing to be easy but, with Danny, I’m hav­ing to learn a new set of rules.

We walk across the sand, our feet leav­ing im­prints, and when we reach the rocks I clam­ber up, look­ing be­hind me ev­ery now and again to make sure he is fol­low­ing.

In front of us is the large, flat rock where Dad and I used to fish. Climb­ing on to it, I ges­ture to Danny to join me.

The waves are rac­ing on to the rocks, spew­ing up white foam, and I close my eyes, en­joy­ing the wind and sea spray on my face and the scream of the gulls.

When I open them again, Danny is stand­ing rigid, his hands pressed to his ears.

He looks like he might be about to have one of his melt­downs, but he doesn’t. In­stead, he turns and climbs back down.

Fur­ther along the beach, a se­ries of wooden steps leads up the cliff to the coastal path above us. It’s where Danny’s head­ing.

I fol­low, my feet sink­ing into the sand as I run. “Danny, wait!”

By the time I’ve climbed up, my heart pound­ing in my chest, Danny is way ahead.

I curse my­self for be­ing so stupid. Be­ing so close to the sea, with its unpredictability and sen­sory over­load, was never a good idea.

With an ef­fort, I man­age to catch up with him. He’s walk­ing fast, a look of de­ter­mi­na­tion on his face.

I fall into stride be­side him, won­der­ing where he thinks he’s go­ing.

The sea is far be­low us, the wide-open space around us dot­ted with sheep that graze the short-cropped grass. The path winds through a patch of yel­low gorse and Danny pushes through.

As I fol­low, the sharp thorns catch the skin of my arm, mak­ing me wince. But Danny, who’s been known to shriek in pain from the small­est scratch, ap­pears not to no­tice.

We walk on un­til Danny stops abruptly to turn back.

****

Ellen is wait­ing for us when we get home, her cheeks flushed.

“Where have you been? I’ve been fran­tic with worry.”

I look at Danny, but he’s star­ing at the floor.

“We’ve been walk­ing.” “Walk­ing?” She says it as though it’s a sport that’s just been in­vented.

“Yes, up on the cliff.”

“The cliff! For heaven’s sake, Tim. What were you think­ing?”

“It was Danny’s idea.”

She looks at her son with un­cer­tainty.

“Danny told you he wanted to walk on the cliff?”

I can’t lie.

“Not ex­actly. He just took off.”

Ellen stares at me and I guess she’s think­ing of all the times Danny used to run off in the su­per­mar­ket when he was small.

“Some­times teenagers need a bit of space. Time away from things. Isn’t that right, Danny?”

But Danny turns and walks up the stairs. Soon we hear his mu­sic but, al­though I strain my ears, I don’t hear the fran­tic rock­ing of the chair.

Ellen sits at the ta­ble. “I rang the school after you left, but his form tu­tor couldn’t shed any light on why Danny was so up­set to­day.”

“Do they think he’s cop­ing?”

“Yes. They’ve bro­ken his as­sign­ments down into smaller steps with a due date for each sec­tion, and they’ve been work­ing with him on his les­son timetable. Ap­par­ently he’s do­ing re­ally well in sci­ence.”

“Maybe it’s the house he doesn’t like.” I look at her. “Or me. He’s been used to it be­ing the two of you for years. Maybe he re­sents me.”

Ellen shakes her head.

“Of course it’s not you, Tim. He likes you.”

I smile and agree, be­cause that’s what my wife wants to hear, but I’m not so sure.

****

It’s the fol­low­ing day and, be­cause Ellen’s work­ing late for the next few days, I’ve brought work home with me again.

I hear the front door slam and Danny comes in, but be­fore I can say any­thing he’s up the stairs.

I crane my head around the banis­ter.

“I’m go­ing for a walk,

Dan. Want to come?”

When he doesn’t an­swer, I put on my coat and go out­side, slam­ming the door be­hind me.

I’ve just reached the gate, and am won­der­ing what to do next, when the door flies open and Danny runs past me, forg­ing ahead in the di­rec­tion of the cliff-top.

I have to run back to close the door, so it’s a while be­fore I catch up with him, but soon we’re walk­ing in com­pan­ion­able si­lence along the cliff, our heads bowed to the wind.

As be­fore, he walks un­til I think I won’t be able to take an­other step, then he turns for home.

The same thing hap­pens the next day and the next. It’s only on the fourth day that I no­tice the ten­sion has left his face.

As he walks, his hands are loose by his sides and he looks happy. A jolt of plea­sure runs through me. In the two years I’ve known Danny, he’s hardly smiled.

The next day, I have to go into work and it’s Ellen who’s at home when Danny gets in from school. The meet­ing I’ve been in has run on and all I can think about is how he’ll have coped with an­other change of rou­tine.

Be­fore I’ve even got my key in the lock, the front door bangs open.

“I’m sorry, Ellen. I tried to . . .”

But it’s not Ellen who’s stand­ing in the door­way; it’s Danny. He’s bun­dled up in his hoodie, his arms folded across his chest.

I’m just think­ing how I’ve let him down, when he reaches up and lifts my coat from its hook.

Hand­ing it to me, he pushes past, as he al­ways does. When he reaches the gate, he stops.

Walk­ing back, he tugs at my sleeve.

“Come on, Dad. Walk.” Dad. He’s never called me that be­fore.

From the hall­way Ellen smiles at me – but I know my grin is wider.

The End.

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