- Published: 18 April 2017
- ISBN: 9781473544963
- Imprint: Transworld Digital
- Format: EBook
- Pages: 320
Best Laid Plans
It was never my intention to take my son kerb-crawling to pick up a prostitute. Nope. Kerb-crawling was definitely not on my ‘To Do’ list after ‘Buy hummus, sort sock drawer, do Pilates’.
A mother does many things for her son – running trays up to his bedroom for nothing more serious than a stubbed toe, detecting lost bits of sports kit, secretly completing overdue homework … But soliciting a prostitute shouldn’t be one of them. ‘So, how much to initiate my son sexually?’ are just not the words a bookish, cake-baking, cryptic-crossword-ninja, law-abiding mum of one ever expects to say to a working girl in thigh-high boots and leather hot-pants in the dead of night in a seedy backstreet.
So how did this sick scenario come about? Well, earlier that night, over dinner, I’d casually mentioned the plans I was making for my son’s twenty-first birthday party. As soon as I mentioned the word ‘party’, Merlin’s face shattered like breaking glass.
‘No. No party! There’s nobody to invite because I’m worthless. I’m nothing … The boys at school said I was a freak. And it’s true … That time I came home with a sign sticky-taped to my back saying “Kick me, I’m a retard” … Well, they were right. I am a retard. No wonder no girl will ever go out with me. Those girls who laughed at me at school were correct – I’m shit on a shoe.’
I can’t quite explain the fierce onrush of tenderness I felt then for my strange, beautiful boy. It overwhelmed me. I tried to hold his hand, but he recoiled as though being doused in boiling water.
‘I can only apologize to you for not being the son you deserve. Why did you ever have me? I bet you wish you’d never had a child.’ My son’s tone was metallic with self-loathing. ‘Why can’t I be normal?’ Each word he uttered was like a bullet to my heart. ‘I’m so sorry I ruined your life, Mum. Without a girl to love, well, I just don’t want to live any more.’
His annihilated voice filled me with desolation. A kind of sludge formed around my heart. Then this sob just wrenched out of him. And, well, it broke something open inside me. I was gripped by a protective, lioness-like love for my gentle, tortured boy for all the years of rejection, bullying and humiliation, for all the misery, isolation and lost dreams. I felt my claws come out … And the next thing I knew those claws were clutching my car keys and I was driving him towards the city to fulfil his inalienable right to the pursuit of life, liberty and human sexual contact.
I’d read in the papers that, since the gentrification of King’s Cross, which was now all gastro-pubs and Pilates studios, the area close to Liverpool Street had become the new red-light district. As we drove closer and my mood cooled, I did register the fact that this was rating rather high on the Oprah-ometer. I mean, what kind of mother gives her son party tips championed by Donald Trump and Berlusconi: ‘Take off pants. Mingle.’ I’m an English teacher at a secondary school … And before you start picturing a boring, pedantic, predictably dull English-teacher stereotype, let me assure you: you are one hundred per cent correct. Was soliciting a prostitute for one’s son a seriously abnormal thing to do? Well, yes, but mothering a child with autism tends to recalibrate one’s view of normal.
When the twin spires of Liverpool Street Station loomed into view, I veered off the main road into a labyrinth of dark streets with low, dilapidated houses huddled together conspiratorially. I nosed my car into a lane-way that resembled a beach after the tide’s gone out – plastic bags, broken bottles, rusting cans and crisp packets, and drunks lying by the wall like drowned sailors.
What the hell was I doing here? I was more likely to be found at a Quilting Bee than on a kerb-crawl. I felt I was going for an interview for a job I didn’t want. This was such a foreign world to me, I might as well have been on Jupiter. It suddenly became an effort to keep hold of the steering wheel. The bitumen seemed to billow under my tyres like a mattress. I could think of a million things I’d rather be doing on this drizzly, grey May evening – a book club, a hot bath – Jesus, reordering my condiment cupboard while doing my tax return looked irresistibly attractive right now.
‘Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea …’ I admitted to my son, who was slumped despondently in the passenger seat beside me. ‘I’m sure someone lovely will come into your life soon, darling.’ My second-favourite mothering experience is lying to my son about his chances of ever having a girlfriend – my favourite being beating my head on his locked bedroom door until drawing blood.
‘It’s so much easier for animals, Mum, isn’t it? Animals are always in pairs. I can’t even go to the zoo any more, because it just reminds me how lonely I am.’
Since puberty kicked in, Merlin has attempted everything to attract girls … Well, everything bar smothering himself in cupcake icing and sauntering through town holding a placard saying, ‘Free Designer Shoes!’ … And still nothing. To girls his own age, he’s just too exotic … The poor boy might as well be a sherbet-winged flamingo flying down the high street.
‘I can’t fathom why no girl wants to date me’ has become his sad mantra. ‘Do you know why, Mum?’
Of course I knew why. Because saying you’re autistic and socially isolated is like saying that you’re on a diet and hungry.
With Merlin’s birthday only a month or so away, his hormones had gone into overheated, obsessive overdrive. When he wasn’t asking me if dogs do it ‘people-style’ or why his penis kept making him touch it, dark moods began to dominate his quick-silvered wit.
‘I’m failing to add up as a person, Mum,’ he’d said a few days before. ‘The constant rejection, it’s breaking me down. I compliment women all the time. I talk to every female I meet … “Are you a woman of experience?” “Do you moisturize?” “How’s the modelling going?” And they just laugh at me. A woman’s sweet smile says nothing about her heart. I struggle, Mum.’ He’d looked at me, his pale-blue eyes wide with confusion. ‘The signals I broadcast make me hum like an amplifier but I’m just not on the same wavelength as women. What can I do, Mum? What can I do?’
What could he do? I’d racked my brains. Mail-order bride? Thai wife? Auction him online? I’d seriously considered this, and was discouraged only by the fact that it’s illegal to sell live things on eBay.
Basically, if I didn’t want his only hobby to be earning Boy Scout badges in Trouser Tenting and his passport to read, under ‘Occupation’, ‘Crazed Loner’, then I had to help him … Which is why I was now kerb-crawling behind Liverpool Street Station.
‘The male kingfisher courts the female by bringing her small fish. They mate even before she’s had time to swallow her wedding present,’ Merlin elaborated.
‘Uh-huh,’ I said, wondering where I could park. The irony of worrying about getting a ticket for parking on a double-yellow line while illegally picking up a prostitute was momentarily lost on me.
‘The male wolf spider presents the females with morsels of food gift-wrapped in silk. Although copulation for spiders must be difficult. How does a male spider let a female arachnid know that he wishes to be her mate and not her meal?’
‘Uh-huh,’ I said again, preoccupied about how I would negotiate the transaction and where the escort would take him. I glanced up at the sooty Victorian buildings crumbling away behind their grey façades. Would she have a room in some seedy B&B, the static electricity from the cheap acrylic carpet providing an impromptu perm? Or – oh God – maybe they’d do it in the car and I’d have to go for a walk? And surely if I walked around here I’d be brutally mugged and my battered corpse tossed into a filthy canal.
Women were skulking out of the shadows now. My heart drilled against my bra. All I could think about were the night-hunting snakes Merlin had shown me on YouTube, and how their infrared sensors allow them to strike at anything warm in the dark.
This was a bad, bad idea. I waved my hand back and forth like a windshield wiper to shoo the women away. White-knuckled, I’d just decided to turn the wheel for home when a statuesque blonde in the clichéd uniform of thigh-high boots and leather hot-pants emerged from a murky whirlpool of pimps and prostitutes.
‘Botticelli’s Venus rises,’ Merlin sighed wistfully, as the woman homed in on us with the nocturnal accuracy of a bat.
I braked abruptly so as not to hit her. By the time I’d established that I hadn’t wet my pants with nervousness, Venus had put one high-heeled foot on my bumper bar like a conquistador. Her beautiful, ice-blue eyes were clear and cold and as hard as mint candies. They were framed by eyebrows plucked into two sceptical arches. Her luscious pink lips were enhanced with the most emphatic lip-liner but I couldn’t quite decipher the exact tone of her smile. It seemed to be held stiffly in place as if for an invisible photographer.
As she leant into the window, I opened my wallet, preparing to launch into the brute vocabulary of the sordid transaction. ‘So, yes … um … so what are your rates?’ I asked, feigning insouciance.
Venus levelled a searing glare at me that only just fell short of igniting my hair.
‘Fifty for a headie. A hundred for the full service. Five hundred for the night … For a thousand, you can have dwarves and a donkey, as far as I’m concerned.’
‘Um … The full service, I guess.’
I extended a fan of twenty-pound notes in her direction. Her hand shot out like a tentacle and wrapped around my wrist. With the contemptuous suavity of a diplomat, she then stated: ‘You’re nicked.’
I dropped the money, the notes scattering over the car floor, and drew back from her as if she were a live socket. ‘Nooooo!’ My volume rivalled the voice of Moses parting the Red Sea. Panic punched my chest. If I were a nuclear reactor, I’d have been going into meltdown. What to do? Pleading seemed the best option. Either that or abandoning the car and sprinting off down an alleyway … an option Merlin now took, leaving the passenger-side door swinging wildly on its hinges.
‘Merlin!’ I called out after him. As he disappeared from view at the far end of the dingy street, I made a noise like a tyre going flat. Couldn’t the undercover officer see that I was more deranged than St Deranged, the Patron Saint of Single Mothers of Special Needs Boys?
‘Please, I must find my son!’ I pushed out of the door to run after him, but Venus blocked my way. The pimps and prostitutes had instantly evaporated back into the shadows, leaving an eerily empty silence.
‘Your son? Jeez, Louise! Tell it to the custody sergeant. He’s gonna love this one.’ The click of the handcuff snapping on my wrist had a dull and final sound to it, like a lead door shutting.
I shouted Merlin’s name again. I tugged the officer in his direction. I flailed about to no avail. ‘Let me go, you idiot!’
‘Do you want me to add resisting arrest to the charges?’
‘You don’t understand! My son is out there alone!’
Venus flashed me her identification badge and began reciting my rights, as a back-up police van pulled up.
As she spoke, I stared at her in shocked silence for what I estimated to be about a million years, then interrupted, ‘But … you can’t arrest me. I have thirty-two English essays on Moral Education Through Literature to mark before morning.’
I’d hoped this would make me appear a sensible, sane, supremely competent career woman and decent member of society rather than a kerb-crawling crazy. But there was no more talk. Despite my squirming protestations and writhing anger, I was told to ‘secure my car’ and was then bundled into the caged back of the police van and dragged off to the local cop shop for questioning.
‘But my son!’ I cried out, beating on the sides of the van. ‘We’re going the wrong way! We should be looking for Merlin!’
When I thought of Merlin alone in the city, a burning sensation skittered through my stomach and my toes curled. How could this have happened? God had clearly taken a sabbatical and left some hopelessly unqualified intern in charge. I felt the wild terror of losing my moorings. Even worse, I’d lost my child. I was a bad, bad, hopeless mother. Kerb-crawling – I mean, what had I been thinking? Clearly, from now on, when it came to parenting I would have to wear a paper hat reading ‘Trainee’.
Once upon a time there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person . . . That’s me, by the way.
I am in the spare room, which doubles as my office, and I have just finished my day’s work.
Dear Girls, You are prohibited from reading this book until you are twenty-one years old.
I had my first panic attack on a quiet sunny morning in Berlin. It was mid-summer.
Johnny Casey launched into a fit of energetic coughing – a bit of bread down the wrong way.
INTRO Dearest Billy, I have a feeling that you’re going to find out about all this, so I thought you’d better hear how it all began, from your own mum.
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.