by Rafael Henry

Chapter 34

Some time later.

I'm reading an essay by Anton. He's autistic, but mildly, according to the paperwork. He's having a conversation with his dog. It's really a rather good piece of work. Anton spends most lunch hours with me in my room while I do my marking so I have slightly more time in the evenings with Otta, when he's at home. As a professional fund-raiser, he's often out and about at meetings of an evening. Anton has trouble communicating successfully with his peers, often resulting in trouble for me to sort out as his form master. You keep lecturing the boys about their interpersonal skills, or the lack of them, but it's like water off a duck's back. This job is always two steps forward and two back.

When Otta came home last night and announced that he has a new fund-raising project starting at Holland House, a residential home for autistic boys, my ears pricked up. I imagined situations far worse than Anton, and how difficult that must be for the boys themselves and the people who care for them.

'I have another meeting there on Thursday Jon. Fancy coming with me?'

'Sure. What's involved?'

'A tour first and then a talk from the guy in charge. We should get an idea of what the situation is like there. Anyway, they need funds badly. Seven o'clock. Can you make that?'

Otta was still out when the neighbour brought the package round at five. I'd just got in. There was white string tied around brown paper in complicated knots impossible to undo. Inside was more brown paper wrapped around a shoe box. Inside that were three video tapes and six small audio cassette tapes……and a note inside a white envelope. I folded up the brown wrapping paper and put it one side and stared at the tapes. My heart's going nuts, and my brain too. I picked up the envelope and tore it open. A hand written note inside.

Dear Jon. I can't keep these any longer. All I can do is apologize, but I wanted you to have them. They are now yours to destroy or whatever. I'm not sure if you knew but we had conversations that might have led you to believe the worst in me. I'm afraid it's true Jon. Think twice before you play them please. I'm leaving the school at the end of this term, so not long now. Nothing bad has happened. Just run out of steam really, after you two, and one or two others. I did love you and Otta. I want you to know that. They want to put on a bit of a do for my leaving. Can you come? You wouldn't have to speak to me of course. I will understand. Perhaps Otta can come too, if you two are still together? I hope so. The Hut is in a deplorable state now, but still there. A bit of a problem with ivy I'm afraid, but you can still get in. You'll have to pull the door hard! It's on the 27 th of next month at six. Have a wander in the garden first. You'll be on your own in there. Please try and come. Affectionately yours, Roger

The three-hour video tapes are VHS thank goodness, not that Betamax stuff. I was going to try the first one, marked with the number 1. There's the usual clunk as I start the tape.

Goodness me. It's all in black and white, but very good quality. Five minutes is enough. Then one of the audio cassette tapes goes into the player. Again, every word, every sound. There must be hours of it. It's extraordinary being taken back to one of the happiest times of our lives.

I extracted the wrapping paper from the bin. No postage on it. It was delivered by hand. But how did he know the address?

I wind the audio tape on further. It's astonishingly real. Every word. Every sound .

Holland House sits in a small park surrounded by one of those cast iron estate fences. It's built of grey brick with windows symmetrically placed around the white pedimented door case. Elegant indeed. I'd say about 1820. Maybe earlier. The main entrance door is open and as we approach, our feet crunching on the gravel, we can hear the voices within.

There are boys wandering about, curious about the visitors so they stare at us. It's slightly unnerving. Two are playing draughts in a corner. Another one just sits on the floor watching us. The sharp sound of ping pong balls being hit by a table tennis bat which has lost it's rubber surface. A sharper sound entirely. And somewhere else, the sound of a piano playing. Otta stops to listen. It sounds to me like Mozart. Otta's organ playing has died a death now. No available organ, but he's kept up his piano practice, the one we brought to Broadstairs from Amelia's house.

Otta says 'Sonata in G. Number 16. The slow movement. Lovely……when it's played properly. Mozart said it's for beginners. For him maybe. It's a grade six piece.'

I kept out of the way while Otta talked business. All the boys have disappeared now, but the pianist keeps playing, in another room somewhere distant, with little gaps, and then the same lines repeated.

By eight o'clock we're on our own with Peter, the Chief Administrator. The others have left. I'm aware that Otta has deliberately hung back. The tour was hard. There are many and various problems here. It's a salutary reminder of how lucky we were are. The piano has stopped now.

'I can get some ideas together Peter. I'm sure it won't be that hard to get another ten thousand in the bank, at least. Probably a lot more. There are plenty of avenues to explore. That should help. The Local Authorities are getting so mean these days. What's the other accommodation like? Do the boys have to share rooms?'

We hadn't been shown the sleeping arrangements.

'Not exactly. The very large rooms have been divided into smaller ones to give each boy privacy. We have twenty-four here. Every boy has his own space and somewhere to put their clothes and other personal stuff. They need to kept separate at night. It would be mayhem otherwise. We have enough problems already so we don't need any more. Come and look. The little ones will be in bed now, but a few will still be reading or whatever.'

All the rooms have their doors open until such time, according to the boy's age. The piano begins again. It's the same piece.

'Who is that playing Peter?'

'Oh that's Wulff.'

We wander on with Peter, passing various fully open doors, some of the occupants in their beds, perhaps asleep already, one or two sitting up and reading. Paperbacks and comics on show. The smell of soap, and I notice, blessedly wholesome loos. The faint sounds of the piano play on.

'The boys like it. The piano playing. Anyway you wouldn't want to stop him. Polly is a bit obsessive.'

'Polly?' Asks Otta, with a frown.

'He's acquired that nickname Otta. I once called him Holland House's very own Apollo and some boys heard me. It stuck for two reasons. The boys call one or two of the others Pollies. No prizes for guessing why. By the way, don't be surprised if you come across boys with not much on in the next area will you. We can turn around here if you prefer?'

No, we won't be offended.

He's right. Most of the youngest are tucked up by now, apart from one or two stragglers having a last pee before lights out in their cube, short for cubicle, their bijou but very nicely appointed sleeping space. All the duvets have different patterns on them, coloured pillows and something personal to sleep with them. There are photos and drawings pinned up on the partition walls too. A nice touch. We pass one lad, quite young, his light still on, lying uncovered on his side in his little white knickers, and his teddy jammed against his face. Sweet. The atmosphere is one of calm and caring everywhere we look.

The older boys are making ready for bed now, and several pass us heading for the showers. No dressing gowns, just towels. We are ignored. Not even a second glance. The showers are not on our tour.

Meanwhile the piano player plays on. Otta's curiosity finally gets the better of him.

'Does Wulff get any tuition Peter?'

'No. Someone left a pile of sheet music here years ago to be used a scrap paper for collage or something in the Art Room. Polly got hold of some of it and worked out what it all meant, all by himself. He's clever that boy. He says he can read it like a book now.

I looked at Otta. His face looked flushed. I know that look. He's getting upset.

'Would it be ok if I spoke to him Peter? Just for a moment?'

'Yes, if he'll let you. He has very little language that he's prepared to share.'

'But he's speaking now isn't he? In his own way? Perhaps we don't need words to reach out to other people?'

'He's talking to Mozart alright. Just not to us.' Says Peter.

'Well, if he can talk to Mozart, he can talk to me.'

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