It’s been a lovely spring day here so there were more people than usual, this afternoon, walking in the valley which runs behind my house. Dylan and I are regulars here; one of our city’s five rivers runs through the valley, providing Dylan with plenty of opportunities for leaning over bridges, leaping across stepping stones and staring transfixed at waterfalls.
Dylan usually steers a wide berth around passers by, especially dog owners, but today he strode purposefully towards a couple walking towards us. He stretched out his arm to shake the man’s hand and declared ‘Kwi’ (Chris). The man’s name was indeed Chris, it transpired, but how Dylan knew this we were unable to figure; Chris and I didn’t know each other nor did he recognise Dylan. ‘He’s been retired ten years as well’, Chris’ partner observed.
Chris had worked in the special educational needs sector before retirement it turned out, at a school in the city which Dylan might have been allocated had he not attended a National Autistic Society school. I assume therefore that at some point Chris must have visited one of Dylan’s settings or been involved in a joint event. Perhaps he’d had passing contact with a group of pupils, one of whom was Dylan? While I wouldn’t expect Chris to remember Dylan from such a situation, Dylan would have logged the encounter in his memory.
‘Nice meeting you’ I shouted (wondering if I’d recognise them if I saw them again) as Dylan veered off up the valley.
Although Dylan has been walking the valley virtually all his life, since we lived close by he has developed fixed routines. Occasionally Dylan will adjust his route or add something new. Recently, for example, he decided we have to climb some steps and add a spur to the outward journey; I think this is so we can pass by three cottages Dylan has developed an interest in. I’m usually pleased when Dylan decides to change his routine but today I wasn’t sure his proposed adjustment could be considered a ‘development’.
Half way up the valley there is a cafe (featured in the Pulp song Wickerman) which Dylan used to visit as a child. In recent years we have continued on, to the top of the valley, where Dylan enjoys a drink in a country pub instead. When we reached the cafe today, however, Dylan was adamant we were going inside. While Dylan didn’t reject the food I ordered for him I could tell there was something else on his mind – some preoccupation I couldn’t fathom.
Then, as we were leaving, I realised what it was: Dylan wanted a ride on the rocking horse (the one Jarvis describes as ‘ridiculously heartbreaking’). ‘That’s for babies Dylan’ I said. ‘You’re too big’. And: ‘You’re a man now’ (making the beard sign). ‘You’re too heavy’, I said. But Dylan clung on. Dylan had loved this horse as a child but he hadn’t asked to ride it for years. What, I wondered, had triggered this request today? I should, I told myself, stick to the line I use about equipment aimed at younger children. Today, however, it felt inadequate: Dylan seemed to have a deep need to ride that horse. ‘Would it be OK’, I asked a member of staff, ‘if my son has a go on the horse?’
As the 20 pence tune started up and the horse began to rock, a look of sweet joy spread across Dylan’s face:
This evening it occurred to me that perhaps it was seeing ‘Kwi’ that triggered Dylan’s desire to ride the horse. Maybe he associated Chris with a particular period of his life during which this was something he did? Could the encounter have unlocked one of Dylan’s deep memories, building and re-building the connections he makes between people and things? Whatever the reason I’m glad that, on the eve of his 22nd birthday, I let Dylan ride the ridiculously heartbreaking child’s horse.
The youtube clip is of the Pulp song, Wickerman, set to narrative film shot in Sheffield by Stephen Woollen. The cafe and rocking horse can be seen at 3:39-4:14.