Shake it off
‘Why did you move?’ asked Jane.
Jane was my only friend since we’d moved to Enfield. I had my sister, Christine, who I could phone when I had the time, but the fact that she lived in Dartmoor left me feeling rather lonely.
The doctors say she’s somewhere on the autistic spectrum. ‘Spectrum.’ A vague way of measuring how socially inept my daughter is. Not only is Orla autistic, but she’s affected by a host of learning difficulties. Her lack of tact means she is often overly honest- even when warned not to be. Whilst she’s sixteen, she has the mental age of a seven year old. Although none of this matters. She’s my daughter and a mother will do anything to protect her child.
I lived in the heart of Dagenham. I use the word ‘heart’ loosely as I don’t know if Dagenham can be described as having a heart. The most comforting thing about that unpalatable town, was the smell of kebab, which wafted into my nostrils, when I walked from the station, to my flat in the next road.
After James’ aneurysm I would lie awake most nights, a bat beside my bed for protection – break-ins were not uncommon in Dagenham. The chugging of a train would arrive every twenty minutes. The lights from the train flickered around the room for a few moments – stealing out from behind the falling curtain rail- I’d been meaning to get that fixed for months. I would worry about Orla and what would happen to her if something happened to me.
In the mornings, I would wake to hear Orla downstairs humming Shake it off, by Taylor Swift, her idol. This was the only song that could calm her during one of her meltdowns. I would pad in my slippers into our box-sized living room, but Orla couldn’t hear me. She would be wearing her florescent, turquoise headphones, humming her song: ‘Shake it off, shake it off… the haters gonna hate…’ She lay curled up on our once beige, shag carpet, which had evolved an orange tinge, from the previous tenant’s tobacco smog. I could never rid the room of this smell. Orla didn’t care. She buried her face into the overgrown carpet, inhaling the familiarity of the smell deep into her lungs.
Getting ready for school was a challenge. Orla hated having her hair brushed- her tight corkscrew curls meant it got knotted easily. On the way to school Orla would hop around the pavement, terrified of stepping on one of the dark spots of dried chewing gum, which littered the concrete. On a good day, she bounced down the road, her head moving in a turquoise blur. On a bad day, she would have a meltdown- perhaps she had stepped on a chewing gum spot, or there was a funny shaped cloud in the sky that upset her. Orla would begin to shriek, passers-by would stare- some offering help and others tutting in disgrace. I would grab her iPod and change the song to Shake it off and her shrieks would slowly be tamed to controllable whimpers.
‘You can tell me anything Orla, that’s why I am here,’ said my helper with the funny glasses.
So I told him.
I used to go to an after school club- it’s called that because I went after school finishes, you see? I didn’t like school, it was full of retards, like me. Because I didn’t like school, I certainly didn’t like being at an after school club. I didn’t like school because even though I was allowed my headphones, I wasn’t allowed to play any music, because I had to learn to communicate. Sometimes, the others would touch my headphones and I would scream and then get put into isolation. At the end of the day, the rich retards went home and the poor ones, like me, whose mums and dads both had to work to get enough money, would have to stay. Except I don’t have a dad like the others. My dad died of an annie-rism. Mum said to Auntie Christine that he did it on purpose, probably to get away from all our stress. Stress like me. She was crying and laughing when she said this. I don’t know if that means she was happy or sad.
My first time at after school club was scary. Mum promised she would be there to pick me up at five o’clock, once she had finished at Tesco. They made us do silly things like painting and singing. Mrs Cleaver said these activities helped us to be more creative. I would watch the big hand on the clock reach the twelve. The little hand was pointed at the five. Then mum would arrive and everything would be better. Although, once, it was five o’clock and mum wasn’t there. I felt dizzy and my ribs began to hurt. Mrs Cleaver’s voice sounded far away and I could feel a meltdown coming. I screamed as loud as I could, maybe that way mum would hear and come back. Mrs Cleaver shouted and she and Mr Jonson tried to grab me and take me out of class- I was setting the others off. After a long, terrible time, mum came back and hugged me tight. I felt better again, because I knew she hadn’t had an annie-rism, just so she could get away from me. Mum apologised for being late, her boss, Paul, wanted a word, so she missed the bus. Mrs Cleaver told mum that if that happens again, she would have to consider calling social services- whoever they are.
When I got home, I would stand in mum’s room and open the door of the dollhouse dad left me. It was really big and heavy- it took mum and dad to lift it onto the unit it stood on! I stroked the plaque on the outside, it felt smooth except for the little dented letters. It said ‘Lorimer’s Mansion.’ That meant it was ours because our last name is Lorimer. I was forbidden to touch it. Forbidden means not allowed under any circumstances. All I could do was stand and look at the tiny people and furniture.
Once, I had planned to just look at it like always- I promise. Then, I noticed the little girl doll had fallen over and I thought it wouldn’t matter if I touched her to stand her up. When I held her, I saw how pretty she was- her pink dress and golden plaits. I couldn’t help playing with her and then I picked up the dad doll. When I tried to put the dad doll into the armchair, I knocked his head off. My ribs began to hurt because I knew mum would find out and be cross with me. Cross is the same as angry.
I stood the dad doll up and placed the head back on the body. I shut the dollhouse door very carefully so it stayed balanced. That night I couldn’t sleep, my pyjama top kept getting stuck to my sweaty back. I heard mum go up to bed and open the dollhouse door- like she does before she turns her light off. Then mum came into my bedroom and shouted at me. She hardly ever shouted at me- only when she was really cross. I know when people use their loud voice it means they’re angry. At the same time tears came from her eyes, which normally means they’re upset. This confused me. I threw myself under my quilt and I screamed until I couldn’t hear her anymore.
When I stopped screaming everything was silent. I peeked out from under my covers and mum was sitting on the floor. She stared at the two pieces of the dad doll and threw them into my bin. She left without kissing me goodnight. I wrapped my pillow over my ears, shut my eyes and hummed Shake it off to block out the scary thoughts. The scary thoughts of mum having an annie-rism, or leaving me at the after school club forever. Mum was my only friend. Auntie Christine sometimes tried to touch my head phones, so I didn’t like her very much. I didn’t want mum to leave, because then who would be my friend?
‘What happened next?’ Jane asked- her head tilted sideways as she listened.
St Adelaide’s College for Young Adults, who, ‘face emotional and social complexities,’ was the next stage for Orla. They offered a trial day, to ensure Orla was happy at the college, but I knew she wouldn’t be happy anywhere new. Any trial days were redundant. Her compulsory school years had finished and she wasn’t capable of going into work. Her first day, as expected, was excruciating- for both of us. Every time a new kid ran past her in the courtyard, she ducked and squatted, clutching her headphones with trembling hands. She didn’t scream – not like her usual meltdowns- she just clung to my legs with tears streaming down her flushed cheeks. Her eyes begged me not to go. She asked if I was leaving her because she had broken the dad doll. I told her she could make some friends whilst I was at work. She replied ‘we’re friends forever mum, I don’t need anyone else.’ Forcing her to let go of me and walking out of the courtyard broke my heart. She stared after me with a look of betrayal on her face, before being led inside, distraught, by a staff member.
To my surprise, Orla did make a friend. Scotty was a big boy who the doctors call ‘a high functioning autistic.’ He was overly polite and on first meeting, hardly portrayed any traits of autism at all. At first I was delighted when Orla asked if her new friend could come for dinner. I wasn’t sure what to expect and asked Orla if I could speak to her friend’s mother next time I dropped her off. Orla assured me that because Scotty was the ‘cleverest student,’ he walked to college alone. I was taken aback by the idea that there were children with autism who didn’t need to be supervised outside.
Throughout dinner Scotty held much more of a conversation than Orla ever could with a stranger. Excitement bubbled within me as I thought about how my daughter had finally made a connection with somebody besides myself or James. It wasn’t until after dinner that my anxiety was sparked. Scotty glanced across at Orla and told her to put her knife and fork together as it was the ‘proper’ thing to do. Orla apologised and Scotty replied ‘it’s OK, you’re a spastic, we highly functioning autistics have to teach you shit autistics how to behave.’ My mouth fell open as I watched my daughter eagerly put her cutlery together. ‘You’re so clever Scotty,’ Orla replied and she grinned because she had pleased him.
Two weeks into college, Orla had begun to call to Scotty her boyfriend. This new take on their relationship worried me further- but I tried to assure myself how important it was for her to make social bonds. Whilst I was concerned about Scotty’s influence over Orla, in the short time she had been at college, she progressed enormously. She had developed enough to take her headphones off whilst playing and leave them somewhere safe to return to afterwards. She had even branched out to listening to a few songs that weren’t sung by Taylor Swift – although these were downloaded to her iPod by Scotty. The college took Orla to the local swimming pool and she had managed, with Scotty’s encouragement, to brave the waters for the first time- even if it was just the shallow end.
One Wednesday whilst I was washing up after dinner, I left Scotty and Orla to play hide-and-seek. I heard a frightful scream and ran into the living room. Orla began having a meltdown. She couldn’t find her headphones- they weren’t on the coffee table where she left them. As if by magic, Scotty plucked the headphones out from underneath a sofa cushion and called Orla stupid for misplacing them. She stopped screaming and looked bemused for a moment. Nevertheless, she hugged and thanked him immensely. Scotty smugly assured me I could carry on washing up- everything was fine.
Should I have put a stop to their relationship on that day? Definitely. But it is easy to be made a fool of by hindsight. All I could think was: How could I possibly tear my daughter away from her first and only friend?
‘Who’s Scotty?’ my helper asked, scratching his bald head with his pen.
Scotty was my first ever boyfriend. No normal boys liked me and I didn’t like the retard boys. Some dribbled, and one pulled his trousers down every time he stood near me. Scotty taught me lots of things- he says he knows I can’t help that I am a spastic. Spastic is another word for retard. I needed to learn. He always knew the right thing to do. He wasn’t stupid like the rest of us.
When I came home once, mum asked to speak to me. I didn’t know why she had to ask to speak to me as normally she just says things. Mum told me that Scotty should never make me do anything that I don’t want to do, even if he says it’s right. That if ever I didn’t like what he was telling me, I should say no. I didn’t understand why mum was saying this. Scotty never asked me to do anything bad. Mum then told me that Scotty should never touch me anywhere that is covered by my underwear. I didn’t know why she would say such a thing- why would Scotty want to touch my bottom? Mum tried to explain something about boys and their teenage urges. I didn’t know why a boy would feel urgent about touching my bottom. I didn’t like this conversation because it confused me. I just pretended I understood so I could go and look at the dollhouse.
On our break one day Scotty and I were eating our sandwiches. We were sitting on the courtyard bench together and Scotty touched my leg under my skirt. I got scared for a second because I thought about what mum had told me. But this was my leg, not my bottom, so I assumed it was OK. Scotty told me that this is what boyfriends and girlfriends do, because they love each other. I didn’t know what love felt like. Sometimes mum said she loved me, but I didn’t say it back because I didn’t understand, even when she tried to explain it. However, I did know that when mum was around everything was better and when Scotty was around, everything was better- so I must have loved him. If boyfriends and girlfriends touch each other’s legs because they love each other, then it was OK for Scotty to touch my leg.
Jane sipped her tea as I continued with the story.
A few months after joining college Orla started her period. One morning she wasn’t lying in her usual spot on the carpet. I heard a whimper from the bathroom and found her curled like a foetus on the floor- a red patch on her pyjama bottoms. I cleaned her up and put a sanitary towel in her underwear- showing her how to use them and all the while trying to explain what was happening to her body. How do you explain the menstrual cycle to a child who cannot even grasp the concept of sex? I hugged her tight whilst she sobbed- not wanting to leave the house because she thought she was dying. Tears dampened my face as I watched my daughter approach womanhood, whilst bitter irony laughed because her mind would never mature.
On the way to college, she gripped my hand like a vice, making my fingers ache. The situation made me late for work. On the bus I sat, rubbing my still throbbing fingers, my mind whirling. I fretted over Orla not changing her towel and leaking over her trousers. I worried about her stomach cramps. Most of all I was troubled over Orla having reached sexual maturity, even though she still had the mind of a small child. My thoughts reeled about Orla’s and Scotty’s relationship. Most parents have the hardship of talking to their teens about safe sex. Orla, however, had never even heard of the word contraception- she wouldn’t understand anyway.
At work I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I began stocking the baked beans where the tomato sauce is supposed to go. When pulled into Paul’s office, I burst into tears- almost like Orla during her meltdowns. In my irrational state I blurted out everything: Orla’s period, the dad doll and even the falling curtain rail. Paul, bewildered by my outburst, sent me home for the day.
My helper scribbled on his clipboard as I talked.
The blood finally stopped after about a week. Mum said it was going to happen every month, because an egg was being released from my body. I decided I was going to stop eating eggs. If there’s no eggs in my tummy, then my body wouldn’t have to get rid of them every month- turns out it’s a different sort of egg.
Once when Scotty came for dinner mum had ran out of curly fries. She only had straight ones left. I almost had a meltdown but mum said she would go and buy some more. She left Scotty and me in the living room and told us not to leave whilst she popped to the shop. Scotty said that perhaps we should kiss because that’s what boyfriends and girlfriends do. I didn’t want to kiss him. I didn’t want his spit on me. If I did, I would have been boyfriend and girlfriend with one of the retards that dribble. Scotty got cross with me and so I thought I would show him the dollhouse to cheer him up. I thought it would be OK if we didn’t touch anything.
Scotty didn’t seem interested in the dollhouse. He peered at it for a moment but then said we should lie on the bed and pretend we were a mum and dad. He said we should do this to practice for when we’re married. After we lay down he touched my leg again. This time his hand moved round to my bottom. I began to scream because I didn’t want mum to be cross with me. Scotty jumped up and grabbed the mum doll from the dollhouse. He said if I didn’t shut up he would break it. I screamed and screamed because I was having a melt down and I had left my headphones downstairs and if he broke the doll then mum might be cross or have an annie-rism and leave.
He warned me to be quiet but I couldn’t because I was having a meltdown.
He snapped the mum doll in half.
I told Jane how I came home from the shops to hear her screaming. I ran upstairs and found them in the bedroom together- blood splattered up the wall. Scotty’s torso and legs lay still, with his head squashed under the weight of the dollhouse. It turns out that Orla and Scotty had fought over the mum doll. During the tussle she pushed him, causing a terrible accident. As he fell, he grabbed the unit the dollhouse was stood upon- to try to regain balance. He pulled it over and the house came tumbling on top of him, crushing his skull and killing him instantly. The dollhouse was smashed to pieces- although I managed to salvage the little girl doll.
Mum says I’m not supposed to tell this part, and I don’t remember much but I remember being scared so I climbed inside the wardrobe and waited for her to come home. When she came in she screamed and when I heard her voice I opened the wardrobe door. Scotty was lying on the floor and mum was staring at him. She began to clean the bat from beside her bed with a cloth and told me not to speak to anyone about what I had just done. I expect she didn’t want me to tell anyone that Scotty had touched my bottom. But my new helper said I should tell him everything. She asked me to leave the room and then I heard a big bang. After that mum said we had to leave Dagenham and I never saw the dollhouse again.
‘It wasn’t an accident, was it?’ said Jane.
I looked down at the little girl doll I clutched in my hands.
‘A mother will do anything to protect her child,’ I told her.