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The Throwaway Boy
By Alix Chapel
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2008 Alix Chapel
All rights reserved.
HOME AND AWAY
Chasing the dream
You find its promise spent
'It Wouldn't Take a Miracle' by Dirk McCray
I was the kind of child who fastidiously arranged her toys in order of colour, size or babyishness. Teddies lived on the top shelf of my rustic wooden bookcase; dolls on the middle shelf; books, placed tallest to shortest, on the bottom two. Thought had to be given to what things went where and attention paid to the level of accessibility for the things most played with. I have always contemplated organisation and believed in order – every aspect of my life has been a result of forward planning. A reliable infrastructure was required and was achieved very early on – perhaps even in infancy, if that is possible.
Over time, the items put under such disciplined scrutiny changed. Evolving from an arranged assortment of simplistic girlish treasures and an ordered array of adolescent accoutrements came finally the methodical accumulation of the essential household items of adulthood. Photo albums filled with a careful chronology of snapshots replaced the teddies. Novels, positioned alphabetically, replaced the picture books, which expanded over time from two shelves to two whole bookcases. Cotton vests changed to silky bras, Ladybird pants changed to La Senza knickers – different dressers, in different homes, in different countries, still housed my underwear in the top drawer. The organisation of kitchen cupboards, linen closets and wardrobes took over. The items were different but still everything had a place. Every thing, from rogue elastic bands to surplus carrier bags; gardening tools to camping equipment; summer clothes to Christmas decorations.
Over the years many people have teased me about my obsessive inclination towards order. One particular day in December 1994, the method I implemented for the storage of our Christmas decorations had been the cause of such playful ridicule. I had asked Billy to go down to the basement to retrieve the box labelled 'Mantelpiece', as I wanted to make a start on decorating the house. 'It's in the utility room in the cupboard by the dryer,' I called out as he made his way down the stairs. 'Right-hand side of the top shelf ...' I shouted down as an afterthought.
Two minutes later, I heard him laughing as he clumped back up the stairs. 'You are the ultimate queen of organisation,' he said as he entered the living room. For some reason, he always found it hilarious that I knew where everything was, not to mention the fact that I labelled everything. By the time I brought up the box labelled 'Tree Baubles', he was relentlessly taking the piss. I didn't know any other way.
Unearthing the boxes of Christmas decorations always brought feelings of nostalgia and excitement. That year in particular, it didn't seem possible that Christmas was upon us – time had flown by as it was wont to do when one has been busy and not noticing. We had finally managed to buy our first house and had recently moved in. We had moved to Canada in 1992 and, after two years, had finally saved up enough for the deposit on our own place.
'It's our first Christmas in our new house, babes!' I excitedly said to Billy when all the boxes had been brought upstairs. I was so looking forward to decorating the house ready for the festive season. 'What's the matter? Aren't you excited?' I asked when I got no response – the laughter over the boxes already forgotten.
'What? Yeah, yeah ... whatever,' Billy replied.
God, I thought to myself, he never gets excited about anything! I took a deep breath and exhaled at length to stop myself from saying something foul to Billy. It is important to be supportive, I reminded myself, and I knew there was no point in getting irritated over his lack of enthusiasm. I was exasperated but I wasn't going to let him dampen my excitement. I had long since given up asking why he never got excited. I was excited enough for both of us. I wanted to start making our own traditions, especially since we'd soon have a baby of our own.
I pictured our child growing up enjoying the kind of Christmases that I had experienced as a child. I hoped and prayed 1995 would be the year we would finally be blessed. We had been trying to get pregnant for six years at that point and had undergone countless tests. I had elected to try fertility drugs and had been on them for the past year. All I'd got from them, though, was a weight gain of 40lb, but I didn't care. I would rather have been an overweight mum than skinny and childless.
After many laparoscopies, the last one having been in September of that year, we were assured by my gynaecologist that there was nothing wrong and to be patient. I had been experiencing quite a lot of pelvic pain but believed my gynaecologist's diagnosis. I had no reason not to fully trust him and, although I was impatient, I was sure it would all work out in the end. I continued to believe it wasn't a matter of if we had a baby, it was when. I had always thought positively – long before it was popular – and this was no exception.
I remember I had said to him, 'Look, Billy, it's the fairy you made for our tree when we were living in Southampton! We were so skint that year, remember? We only had £5 to spend on each other!' I suppose I was still trying to get him involved.
'I bought you Turkish Delight,' Billy said, finally responding to me.
'Yeah, and I got you a box of Maltesers,' I remembered and smiled. 'Would you have thought then that nine years later we would own our own home and be living in Canada?' I asked, wanting to keep the verbal exchange going.
'No chance!' Billy replied. 'We've come a long way, love ... I couldn't have done it without you.'
'I didn't think you would ever leave Britain,' I added speculatively.
'I don't know why! I'm glad to be shot of the place ... there's nothing there for me now,' Billy snapped back, already grumpy again.
'That's a bit harsh, Billy,' I gently chided – always the peacekeeper.
Billy suddenly got up and gruffly announced that he was taking the dog for a walk.
'All right, love,' was what I said, although I was actually thinking, Shit ... moody bastard!
When he returned, he was in a better mood. We decided to leave the decorating until the next day, get a pizza delivered, and watch the video I had picked up from Blockbusters. Billy lit the fire and, with our dog Ben sprawled on the floor by our feet, we cuddled up together on the couch.
The next day, again I tried in vain to get Billy involved with the decorating. In the end, he was so distracted I just carried on by myself. He was looking at the television but I knew he wasn't watching the programme. He did that now and again and, as always, when I asked him what he was thinking about, he just replied with a vague answer. What made his behaviour even more confusing was that there was never any pattern to it. I wished he would talk to me more but at least I was sure that he wasn't in a bad mood because of something I had said or done. It wasn't about us, I was certain of that. I reassured myself that Billy could snap out of his mood as quickly as it came and convinced myself not to be too overly concerned about it.
After finishing the mantelpiece, I started on the tree. Rummaging through the remaining boxes, I came across a misplaced, ornamental ceramic tree that I had made in kindergarten. The mere sight of it every Christmas transported me back, reminding me how the whole class had made those festive decorations. We had each been given a lump of clay that we kneaded and formed into a cone shape. Then we were told to pinch the sides all over to give the appearance of small branches. After that was completed, the caretaker came to our classroom to show us how to paint them and told us that he would take them all down to the basement and bake them in the kiln. He stressed that it was very important not to get any paint on the bottom of our trees as it could cause them to get too hot and they could explode. I remember I concentrated so hard, determined to only brush the paint on the sides.
I had been horrified when some paint did smudge on the bottom. I tried desperately to wipe it off, but without success. In fact, I most likely made it worse. I was scared, but said nothing. I just put my tree on the tray with the rest of them.
That night I worried so much I felt sick. I lay in bed sucking my thumb, imagining my tree getting too hot and exploding. I couldn't bring myself to tell Mummy or Daddy. The next morning, as we walked to school, I was terribly nervous. As we rounded the corner, I felt sure I was going to be faced with total devastation, the school reduced to a pile of rubble. When I knew the school would be in view, I was too scared to look. I had been expecting Mummy and my sister, Kate, to gasp, but, when they continued talking, I dared to look. I had been so glad to see the school intact.
When I reached my classroom and saw all the trees on a tray on the teacher's desk, the sense of relief had been immense. I remember that feeling. As an adult, standing in my living room, I saw the tiny speck of paint on the bottom of the tree and immediately realised what a silly worry-wart I had been, especially since it had all been for nothing. Undoubtedly, loads of other trees would also have had paint on the bottom.
Obviously, I was already a head-dweller and showed obsessive-compulsive tendencies even at that young age. I often wonder if that obsessive part of my personality is inherited. I can see a definite link with Dad's side of the family. My sisters and I, Dad, Grandma – we all have OCD to varying degrees, but the fact that it manifested itself in different ways with each of us suggests against it being learned behaviour. We are all very particular and we all have fixations, but not with regard to the same things, although, admittedly, there are similarities. None of us has the hand-washing issue that is so associated with OCD, and some 'obsessions' are actually rather funny. I always laugh at Kate when we are sharing M&Ms, for example; she has to have an even amount to eat, so, if her share totals an odd number, she throws one away; I will only eat one colour at a time, even though I know they all taste the same. Obviously, we are as bad as each other.
I love having mementos from my childhood, like the ceramic tree, around me. Still clutching the tree, I began thinking, as I often had in the years since Billy and I first met, how strange it was that he literally had nothing from his childhood. Well, except two old battered pictures from when he was about three years old. He wouldn't even have had those if I hadn't asked to have them from his mum. Maybe it was just a guy thing.
I especially loved those little pictures of him; he looked so cute and innocent. I had the best one framed and put it on my bedside table. On Billy's bedside table I put a picture of me at the same age. The day I put them in our bedroom, Billy commented on the photo of me but he couldn't even bring himself to look at his photo.
Deciding to stop decorating for the day, I placed the ornament on the coffee table just as Billy's voice broke through my thoughts, asking if I wanted to take Ben out. I thought it was a great idea and ran to get Ben's lead. As soon as Ben heard the jingle of his lead, he came barrelling into the kitchen and started bounding round and round me. He was a Collie cross, and the most gorgeous dog I had ever seen. He had the same colouring as Lassie and, although we didn't know what he was crossed with, we thought it was something like a Lab as he had their size and shape.
We had got him as a tiny pup seven years earlier, when we'd lived in Cardiff. We both loved Ben with all our heart. He filled the baby void so completely we couldn't possibly imagine life without him. Both Billy and I adored him with equal measure. But Ben, he adored Billy. I wasn't jealous. You just had to look at them together to know that nobody could compete with that. Billy and Ben ... Ben and Billy. They were inseparable. They were the reason dogs were referred to as 'man's best friend'. That, he most certainly was.
I always kind of thought that Billy's love for him was different – strange almost. Billy seemed to get something from Ben that I have never witnessed before, and stronger than any other master–dog relationship I had ever seen. And, actually, there was a certain something that passed between them that was almost human. When we had decided to move to Canada, it was never a question of whether he would come with us – it was more a question of how we would make it work.
That afternoon we decided to take Ben to Willows Beach. I loved it there especially because it was a place that held such lovely memories of my childhood; I had played there such a lot as a child. When I lived in Britain, it was the one thing I missed most about Victoria.
It was a clear day, so I hoped we would be able to see Mount Baker in the distance. The only downside with taking Ben to the beach in the winter was that we had to keep him on the lead. He loved the water so much and would be straight in given half the chance. Other dogs swam in the winter, but I worried that it would be too cold and might not be good for him – obviously, overprotective as well as obsessive!
All too soon, the weekend was over and it was Monday morning, and back to work. I ran my own children's nursery and Billy worked as a care-giver at a day-centre for mentally and physically disabled adults.
When we had first arrived in Canada, Billy got a construction job. It was what he had always done. After a while, his back was starting to cause him a lot of pain. Eventually, he was diagnosed with arthritis of the spine and advised to change his job. At first, he thought he would be fine and continued his construction job, but it soon became evident that he would have to try something new. After a lot of assurances that we would manage just fine, I convinced him to leave construction, rest his back for a while and see what transpired.
He had only been out of work for a few weeks when a friend suggested he try volunteering at a local day-centre for mentally and physically disabled adults. At first, Billy was sure that he couldn't do it – 'People like me don't get jobs like that,' he had said. I was used to his lack of confidence but I was really sure he would be great at it. I asked what he meant by 'people like me', and told him he mustn't sell himself short all the time. I knew he liked the idea and I finally talked him into giving it a try.
I was so proud of him. He did so well that, within a few months, he was offered a part-time position and then, a few months after that, he landed himself a full-time job. He came home bursting with enthusiasm and said that, for the first time ever, he actually looked forward to going to work. He also said, after the first few days, that he thought people went to work because they had to, not because they wanted to. I found that, in particular, very sad and was so grateful that he had been given the chance to prove to himself what he was capable of. I was convinced he had found his calling.
I had trained as a nursery nurse in Britain and, when I returned to Canada, I opened my own nursery. Like Billy, I, too, loved my job but I was also really looking forward to our Christmas break that year. As it happened, that was nothing unusual. We only had one more week of work and I couldn't wait. The week flew by and, before we knew it, it was the weekend again. Billy and I spent the whole week before Christmas enjoying our new home and getting ready for our visitors.
Billy loved cooking and baking and was really good at it, so I quite happily let him take over with the food preparations and I stuck to decorating. On Christmas Eve, my parents, my younger sister, Naomi, and her husband, and my youngest sister, Sophie, all came over for dinner. My older sister, Kate, was living in England and, although she had been home for Christmas the year before, that year she couldn't get the time off work.
I wanted to start a new tradition so I got small, fun presents for everyone to open on Christmas Eve at our house. I decided I would do it every year from then on. I got Billy a selection pack of chocolates. Mum and Dad had gone to Britain that autumn, as they had done every year to visit family, and I got them to bring one back so I could give it to Billy. We couldn't get them in Canada and I thought it was something Billy might have had as a child. British chocolate had always been the best so I knew he would enjoy it.
He seemed surprised when he opened it. He laughed at the bars of chocolate he hadn't seen in ages and said he couldn't wait to eat them. Next, Sophie opened hers. As she was ripping off her wrapping paper, I glanced over at Billy. He seemed distracted again. I called out to him but, wherever he was, he didn't hear me. With everyone there and all that was going on, no one seemed to notice ... but I did.
Excerpted from The Throwaway Boy by Alix Chapel. Copyright © 2008 Alix Chapel. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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