The Normal Boy - Prologue
Stories should always start at the beginning. That is the general consensus anyway. To be fair, it does help the person reading the story follow what is going on; helps them to understand the reasoning behind the actions taken by those involved.
So. The beginning. The very beginning. A baby left on a bench outside a hospital. The baby – a boy, a little over a week old – was found by a nurse who was breaking hospital policy by smoking on site, and as she later told the local paper, thank god she had. He was small, and the midwives the nurse raced him into reasoned that he may have been born slightly prematurely, but he was healthy, clean, well fed. Someone had cared for this child before leaving him on a bench, outside, in the middle of January, where it was only by chance that the nurse in question had decided to sit round that side of the entrance. No one liked to say what could have happened, although of course, they all did. Where the boy had come from was a mystery: there was a media campaign, of course there was, but no one came forward. Social services decided that this meant that the baby’s mother was probably young, maybe from a religious family whose reaction she was scared of, possibly an illegal immigrant. The media liked that aspect of the story: something to get their teeth into. A metaphor for everything wrong with society today, don’t you know. But, in all truth, any ideas about the boy were guesses. There were no hints, no clues, no poorly spelt but heart wrenching letter left in his blanket, which incidentally, wasn’t extraordinary in the slightest. Sadly for the tabloids, it wasn’t handmade, knitted by some dotting great grandmother, and stained by the tears of his devoted and yet hard done by young mother. What was on the papers side however was that he was a very pretty baby; everyone agreed. He often had a ring of midwives around his cot when he was in the hospital, cooing over him as he focused on them with his big blue eyes. As they didn't have an exact date of birth, they decided to settle on 1st January: a new start for this new little boy.
Eventually he was moved into a foster home. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing, and the foster mum was a good one, with years of experience, and love to spare. With no idea what the baby should be called, it was decided to call him Jack. It’s a nice name. Nice and normal, and in no way extraordinary. At 18 months, Jack was moved into another foster home. Another foster family, kind and happy, and far busier than his last home. His new foster mum was thrilled with little Jack. Other babies, when they came to her at that age, would cry and mourn for the only mother they had ever known, but not Jack. He was such a happy lad, always laughing and smiling his new tooth at people. His eyes had stayed blue, and a shock of black hair had arrived with his first birthday. He was a lovely little boy to have around, and hardly any bother. His older foster sisters loved playing with him, cuddling him, feeding him biscuits which he would gum into submission, and generally treating him like a doll. By this time social services had given up hope of finding his birth mother. Whoever she had been, she was no longer a part of Jack’s life, and it looked like she never would be. So, in her place, a new, permanent family was looked for. A family that happy, lovely baby Jack would fit right into. A family in which he would be safe. And just shy of his third birthday, that family was found.
Jack would be losing his big, happy, noisy foster family, but gaining the loving, secure, stable, Abel family. He would have a mum called Ruth, a dad called Richard, and a big sister called Jessica. When Jack was placed into his new Mum’s arms, his bottom lip did wobble a little, and a few tears did form in his eyes, but he was soon distracted by a toy his new Dad waved in front of him, and by his new sister tickling his ribs. Jack was such a happy boy, and such a joy to have around. Nothing seemed to faze him for long. And he was so eager to please! When he went to pre-reception a little over a year later, his teacher was gushing about what a kind, considerate little boy he was. He only had to be asked once, and immediately he would help his table clear up. He only had to be shown once how to do something, and he could do it for himself. He was by far one of the most intelligent children of that age she had ever taught. His colouring for example was always done on the paper provided, and never the walls, and for the most part was between the lines. What an outstanding young man.
And so it went on, year after year as Jack grew up, his teachers would gush over what a lovely boy he was, about his leaps forward in multiplication tables, about how good he was at using capital letters in all the right places. It was, as Jess pointed out, quite sickening. For his mum and dad however, it was also a little... worrying. For all of Jack’s excellent school work and wonderful behaviour, he wasn't exactly the most popular child in his class. Far from it in fact. At every parent-teacher conference, it would always end with the teacher assuring them that, yes Jack was a lovely boy, and well liked by the staff, but he just didn't seem to be able to make friends. It was almost as if... he were confused about how to deal with the other children in his school. He would just look at them, this strange, almost bemused look on his face, whenever they would try and talk to him. His parents, being the sort of sensible and caring people they were, decided that it was best to be on the safe side and have Jack tested. For everything. By the time Jack was 11, and had started secondary school, he had been through tests for Autism, ASD, Aspergers, ADD, ADHD and a whole load of other letter combinations with hidden medical meanings. With every test, the doctor or psychiatrist or psychologist would end the session with the same pronouncement: there was nothing clinically wrong with Jack. He responded well to socialisation tests, he was of above normal intelligence, he was empathetic. His parents were assured that some children just weren't that social with others of their own age group. It was nothing to be concerned about; it didn't mean anything was wrong with him. And perhaps it was to be expected. He lived to please the adults around him, to make them laugh, to do as he was told, after all. Maybe this was a hang up from his early life. Yes, that would be it; that was the reason he wasn't quite like other children his age. Even with such good care as he had received, being in the foster care system would have to leave a mark. His parents breathed a sigh of relief. They could live with that reasoning. It was a good reasoning to have: no one was really at fault; there was no one to blame. It was just the situation; it couldn't be helped. And if the only thing that set him apart was the fact that he didn't have an ocean of friends around him... well, that wasn't so bad was it? I mean, Jess didn't have that many friends either when she was at school, and she turned out almost normal, now that she had taken most of the piercings out.
As Jack progressed through secondary school, things began to change. Not Jack, who was as bright and well behaved as he ever was. What began to change was the reaction of the children around him. Whereas when they were younger Jack was ignored by certain kids, and forced into interaction by others, by the time secondary school rolled around Jack began to encounter those who were not entirely willing to let him alone. It wasn’t quite at the bullying stage when Jess found about it. By this time she was at university, so one weekend when she was back – in order to eat enough vegetables to stave off scurvy she told their Mum and Dad – she tried to give Jack the type of advice she wished she had received when she was his age:
“Jack, I’m going to be honest with you. I love you dearly, but you are not normal.”
“Now, weird is nothing to shy away from. Weird is good, and is something to be cherished. But, sometimes you need to curb it.”
“I don’t really understand where this is going.”
Jess sat down on her brother’s bed. It was 7 at night on a Friday, and he was doing homework at his desk. She looked around at his room. It was neat. Too neat for anyone really, but certainly a teenage boy.
“Jack, you are a lovely kid, and incredibly smart, but that is not all you can be. You seem...” Jess waved her hands about, the way Jack knew she always did when trying to grasp onto an idea, “You seem like a blank canvas. You’re like a lump of clay that can be moulded and pushed about by Mum and Dad. You follow every rule, every command without questioning it, and although that is well behaved... it is too well behaved to be normal.”
“Are you telling me to break the rules?”
“No... well, not all the time,” she sighed, turning herself round to face him properly. She screwed up her face, trying to verbalise what she meant as her hands once again flew about around her face searching for what she meant to say, “I’m not telling you to break the rules, just... you should think about why the rules exist in the first place: whether you agree with them, whether by obeying them you are helping yourself out in the long term. You have to work out what your journey will be to get to where you want to be, not where other people say you should be... or could be. You don’t have to go straight from point A to point C via B. You can take the windy path; visit the other letters, a few numbers even. You can create your own map.”
Jack thought about this, or at least tried to. As a piece of advice it wasn't exactly the easiest thing for a 12 year old to fathom and put into practice, even one as smart as he was. He looked at the homework in front of him, at his handwriting on the page. It was neat, like the rest of him. It fit in a certain box. It had never really occurred to him to do things differently to how he was told. Why wouldn't he write paragraphs as his teachers told him? Why wouldn't he wear the clothes his mum bought him? It didn't affect him negatively. He tried to express this to Jess. She looked at him as if studying him, as if trying to work out whether he was serious or taking the piss. It was a look he had seen on many faces, and one he was very familiar with.
“Jack, you need to stop thinking about things in terms of ‘it could be worse’ and start thinking about things in terms of ‘could it be better’. You need to stop thinking about yourself in terms of others, and start thinking about yourself in terms of... yourself. You need to start asking the question, does this make me happy? Or am I only doing this because it is expected of me?”
Does it make me happy?
What a strange question.
It was something that Jack spent much of the weekend considering. What makes me happy? And Jack, being Jack, decided to make lists. First it was a list of school subjects that he enjoyed the most, and then it was a list of things outside of school that he enjoyed, a list of foods he particularly liked to eat. This was all fine and good, but then he considered the hierarchy of all of these different things; what was the best thing of all his favourite foods? Why was that better than the others? Jess looked in as her brother wrote out again and again his favourite things, in order of importance, in order of how much he liked to do them.
“Jack, love, that wasn't what I meant.”
He paused from his list making.
“I don’t understand.”
Jess sat down on his bed again, in his too tidy room, and rested her chin in her hands, her elbows planted on her knees.
“Happiness isn’t something that can be measured. It’s something... to be experienced, that you live through. If you are pausing to think about how much you are enjoying it, then you are not actually enjoying it. You are not being it. And the thing about happiness, it is such a little word for such a big thing. Such a complicated thing. There are different types of happiness, and as you get older, you will feel these different types of happiness for the same things. You can be really happy about having lasagne for tea when your 10, but when you’re 30, it might still make you happy, but not as happy as it used to. Does that make sense?”
Jack frowned as he thought about this. After a few minutes very serious thought, he looked into his sister’s expectant face.
“I suppose it does make sense. Should I only do things that make me happy then?”
“Sweetheart, the universe doesn't work that way. There is a core of things, like maths and PE that you have to do no matter what, but the things that you have options in, when it comes to that, you have to think about yourself. Think about the other boys at school, how they think about the world. How do they live their lives?”
“But Jess, the other boys get in trouble. They only do what they enjoy.”
“Well... don’t be like them, but be a little bit like them.”
Jack had never been so confused in all his 12 years. A few minutes later, Jess left his room, and Jack began to think. He thought about what was expected of him, he thought about what he enjoyed. He thought about what Jess had said about the importance of ‘happy’, but that happy wasn’t something that was a stable, measurable thing that could be defined. Jack thought about all of this. He pulled out another sheet of paper, and picked up his pencil. He rolled the HB between his fingers as he thought about what he was going to write. Jack looked at the door, making sure it was closed. He started on a new list:
Things To Do In Order To Appear Normal.