EXTRACT: Patience, Toby Litt

ON THAT AFTERNOON I was where the Sisters usually Sister Cécile wheeled me and put on the brake. I was close to the white wall just as I have been thinking.

And Jim arrived.

The lift doors opened on our floor and Sister Britta led someone with strong even footsteps not the fzz of wheelchair wheels up to and then through the wooden gate after lifting the latch and then took them the footsteps along the long corridor to a dorm Dorm 3 and said ‘This will be your bed’.

Then she took the footsteps further to show them the Craft Room the Music Room the Refectory and the Boys’ Bathroom.

As was the custom the first night the footsteps had supper on a tray in their dorm on their own and I would not learn to whom they belonged until breakfast the next morning.

I do not know what it was made me so excited that night for I had heard nothing unusual no but I had as he passed smelled him Jim and he smelled of sea-saltiness as if he had just come from the sea which I had never seen but had heard was salty and this salty smell was free and healthy and of outdoors not antiseptic which made me know he was special.

By the afternoon Jim arrived I had become very good at being patient so good that I expected to be able to live out the rest of my time on that ward and whichever ward followed it for it would of course be a ward with equanimity a lovely word if not contentment a cosy word just so long as Charlie or another knife-obsessed bully did not decide particularly to focus upon me as the object of his cruelty for no apparent reason. Each day I was able to take as something midway between a gift and a burden for as the Sisters I am sure would take the opportunity to say every burden is a gift and every gift is a gift from God and a chance to avoid unnecessary symmetry and neatness of phrasing though they would not say or even think that but I would because I cared about such things as accuracy of verbal expression with a passion that became an ethic because I so often thought how exactly would I say this or that were I able to speak or write it.

The question of whether if I could suddenly gain the ability for verbal self-expression I would choose to speak aloud clearly with fricatives as well as plosives or to write handwriting neatly is one that preoccupied me very much and I think I can now say I would choose for myself writing because even with as much time as I have had to think about what I would like to say and how exactly I would like to say it and even after the unlocking by Dr Masters it still speech still goes wrong even in my head so often that it must be an unsatisfactory medium of self-expression but as I back then would not have been choosing only for myself but for myself on the ward in which I lived I think I would say the ability to shout Stop or to tell one of the Sisters exactly what the cause of Lise’s distress was this or that morning would be the correct and only humane choice.

Of course after all these years around me the Sisters knew that I had sounds that were the equivalent of Stop but to these they did not pay sufficient attention in the moment for them to be useful so the perpetual frustration was that although I could in theory convey Stop or No this was ignored and even if it hadn’t been I could not explain why they should stop or what it was that was so wrong with the present state of affairs that I had found it necessary to cry out and so I was always afraid that if I overused my cease and desist sounds I was likely to become the boy who cried wff because wff along with hff was one of the sounds I found easiest to make.

For at least two years when I was younger and after I first heard the story of the boy who cried wolf and also a radio broadcast of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf I used to think about exactly what I would do were a real wolf somehow to enter the ward seen by no-one else but me which was unlikely as even when parked in front of the white wall and near the gate there tended to be another child within ten feet of me Lise Kurt or at least within sight further along the long corridor which was a long straight corridor of blue floor tiles and off-white ceiling tiles fluorescent strip lights with seven doors off to the right and two wide windows off to the left then the framed poster of Wild Animals of the African Savanna then two more wide windows before the Chapel.

What I had concluded was that the best thing I could do would not be to risk enraging or alarming the wolf by crying wff! wff! but to attempt to buy the Sisters as much time as possible to come within sight recognise the eruption of a wolf in their safe space and to escort or carry the remaining children down the fire escape past Dorm 7 the Princesses’ dorm into the courtyard and safety. The best thing I could do would be to draw the wolf’s attention to me and to attempt to keep it there by whatever humming or wriggling was necessary and although I do not mean to sound heroic or martyrish if it was necessary even to allow the wolf to begin eating my feet or more likely my exposed hands then I would endure as long as I could for then I would finally be useful and maybe yes a bit heroic.

I used to have many dreams to this effect.

I remember the dream I had the night before Jim arrived I dreamed of falling down the stairs with my father behind me like a big shadow as if this had caused my paralysis rather than the hour of my birth being a real hour an hour long that towards the end involved minutes of strangled suffocation of which I have heard the medical details many times but I do not remember the dream I had the night of the day of the evening Jim arrived because I hardly slept for excitement so did not dream and woke in the morning exhausted but exhilarated and lay flat in my barred cot and listened to the radiators gurglingly tickingly filling with hot water always a deep joy as it not only meant I would not be cold for much longer but also because it was a rich series of unpredictable sounds a soundworld as they often said on Radio 3 most notably the first time when I was eight years old talking of Gustav Mahler the doomed composer who wrote music they told me about the death of his child before his child died and who showed extreme and painful tenderness not only for separation from his own flesh but for all human separations fleshly and spiritual and he did this through an ambitious music that was cut off when Sister Cécile went for a haircut and Sister Britta turned the radio off but I had heard enough of the first movement and a half of Symphony Number 6 to know what a soundworld was and to learn that I lived in one a great long one.

My favourite soundworld aspect apart from the radio on Radio 3 in the office was Sister Cécile in the Music Room playing waltzes down the echoey corridor when the light was low and supper smelling up and childish whooping was at a minimum because we were all tired after a day of being ourselves perhaps a little hysterical earlier waltzes to calm us for then I could imagine I was near a ballroom where as Sister Muriel vivaciously described waltzes were first performed in Vienna and where people danced and fell in love with other people as flowing dancers first and as people second so even when there was no radio going swoop and ching and brr and la-la-lah I could tune in to the latest hits of the heating system from boiler upwards that in the morning really did become like the timpani section of the Berlin Philharmonic under their conductor Herbert von Karajan playing the kind of modern compositions that even Sister Cécile tended to turn off or turn down if she was not occupied elsewhere.

The other soundworld there I loved was Christmas carols because they floated on the air like icing on marzipan that is pretending to be snow on a Christmas cake with the smiling snowman cake decoration and the Santa’s sleigh cake decoration that came out every year although the Sisters were very careful with me because I could so easily choke and choke to death on a currant or a raisin just as if it were an orange button but the peace of O Little Town of Bethlehem traveled in a straight line parallel to the floor from the radio to my heart and I believed that at that precise moment my mother who must love carols because carols are the sound of a mother a mother like Mary’s wall whiteness and plain love for her infant child born in Bethlehem or anywhere in the world amid woe and straw and kine and need to be redeemed she heard my mother heard as I heard and in our ears we met as if our ears were touching and her ear was tender against my ear and her cheek was motherly against my cheek like marzipan beneath icing like snow though warm and blushing with happiness to think of the faraway son having his best Christmas because of the three wise men card and Snoopy book and blue and white stripey jumper and together travelling along the long sounds of we see thee lie.

I wished her my mother a Merry Christmas through the still small voice of the carolling that hymns on high in the human heart and cannot but be felt wherever kitchens are full of roasting smells and brothers and sisters who can stand and walk in and out of rooms full of gratitude for their presents from their parents and appreciation of every bauble on the Christmas tree and every link in the paper chain with which they have festooned the ceiling from corner to corner marvellous word festooned above their diagonally crowned heads because they couldn’t wait to crack the crackers and so become on this day a royal family with Princes and Princesses as well as King and Queen before the real Queen’s speech that is warm but wise as she offers motherliness to everyone in the Commonwealth sometimes in front of her tree which is bigger than the trees of almost everyone else in the Commonwealth she sent a great message from me to my mother speaking of the importance of family at this special time of year or the especial importance of family at this time of year I can’t remember which she said exactly but the Queen comes after the carols from King’s College Chapel Cambridge and for an hour and a half the long corridor of the ward was a soundworld of choirboys with voices like snowing singing notes like icicles to listeners as cosy as fires in hearths with stockings hanging on either side just like the Christmas card from one birthday card and one missing birthday card before Jim arrived.

My poor mother when the Queen speaks of the especial importance of family must think of me with warmth and guilt and longing and Mahler sounds but we have already been together at Yuletide in O Little Town and in our ears of beautiful white cake.