Doing Chatting

Eleanor Birne

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
    Cape, 272 pp, £10.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 224 06378 2

When my grandmother found out my mother was going to marry my father, she asked my mother to reconsider. ‘What about David?’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t you like to marry David instead?’ David is my father’s brother. He still lives alone in the council house my grandmother died in. He used to hear voices; schizophrenia was suspected until it turned out that he was hearing the neighbours talking through the wall. My father has been inside the house only once in the 23 years since she died, and then only because he forced his way in after finding blood on the doorstep (a cycling accident, David claimed). The same chequered lino is there, the same brown curtains; the jigsaw my grandmother was in the middle of when she died is still out on the table, dusty and half-assembled. On the wall in the corridor hangs the granddaughter clock she left me and that I’ve never seen. David has trouble looking you in the eye, has a stutter and hasn’t yet got the hang of speaking on the phone. For the past forty-five years he’s held down a job assembling TVs and radios on a factory production line. It’s fiddly, detailed work. Most of the people he used to work with have been made redundant, but David has been kept on because he’s brilliant at his job. He’s also brilliant at remembering people’s birthdays. He never fails to show up on his bike (he’s not allowed to drive) the evening before, with a card stencilled in his immaculate and incongruous calligraphy. My grandmother, like the rest of the family, always knew there was something different and difficult about David. When my mother was asked if she wouldn’t rather marry him, she smiled and said it was his brother she wanted. My grandmother pursed her lips, told her my father was a miserable bastard, and predicted they’d be divorced in two years.

If David were at school today he would be said to have Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition originally described in Vienna in 1944, but not widely diagnosed until the late 1990s in Britain and North America. Asperger’s is a development disorder characterised by impairment in social interaction and by restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. Boys with Asperger’s like routine and don’t like change; they are acutely sensitive to certain sounds, smells and tastes. In contrast with autism, there are no significant delays in language or cognition. It’s rare to be given an idea of what Asperger’s or autism might be like from the inside, given the communication problem, and given the evident attraction of the carer’s story. There are newspaper columns about coping with autistic children, and there’s the lovable Rain Man: one man’s magical discovery of what it means to be good, through the medium of his impossible brother. The looking-after is supposed to do terrible and wonderful things to the responsible few, and whether or not this is generally the case, it makes excellent copy.

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