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