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Dean

My name is Dean and it’s everyone else that’s crazy, not me. I’ve never understood why no-one else seems to see the world like I do, but just recently I’ve given up expecting that someday soon they will. I have become accustomed to the fact that no-one seems to see the smoky fumes spiralling disgustingly into the sky, no-one is deafened by the constant buzzings and bleepings of the latest technologies, and no-one is blinded by the thousand flashing lights they pass by each day. Maybe they don’t want to notice, or maybe they’re just too busy listening to their iPods anyway.

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Strangers: a short story TOPICS SPECIFICALLY FOR YOU

It’s the kind of thing a trendy, young-adult, pretentious magazine might call ‘modern living’. And I hate it. Yesterday I made a resolution: if one more thing annoyed me that day then I’d get out of here, catch a train to some unknown village of cows and mud and peace, and leave this city forever. Eleven minutes later I saw a man on the street with a guitar and sad eyes and nobody paying him any attention, and that’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.

Michael

My name is Michael and I am autistic. And I hate how that fact is always so immediate, following straight on from my name, like it’s what defines me. It’s not what defines me.

I am aware that I see things differently to other people, of course I am. But this is how things have always been in my life, so it’s normal to me. It’s everyone else that’s crazy.

I am an avid reader and have a mild interest in water polo. I watch films and listen to music and spend time with the people I love, just like everyone else. But nobody knows or cares about these things because all they see when they look at me is a giant plaque above my head reading ‘SPECIAL NEEDS’. I even watch it happening: their eyes glaze over and I can practically see as the little cartoony thought bubble appears next to their heads.

Even my parents seem to put my condition before my personality these days, and it frustrates me so much that I want to scream and shout and run and punch and thrash and kick and cry and throw things and make them SEE and…

And that’s why I’ve got to get out of here.

Dean

I’m the kind of person that looks like they belong in a train station. The kind of guy that when you look at them words like ‘student, drop-out, dead-end jobs and dyed hair’ are always among the first to come to mind. But there’s one crucial difference between me and them: I don’t have The Itch.

I decide to pause my vague meandering through platforms and chain stores and countless heaving bodies with things to do and people to see. Because, let’s face it, I have the time. I step to one side and glance apologetically at the anxious-looking, bespectacled kid I manage to bump into as I do this. Then I watch The Itch magic in motion.

It doesn’t take long. I spot my candidate in a matter of seconds: a skinny-jeaned lad with a head full of angst (and half a can of hairspray). He’s slouching against a wall in that carefully calculated manner designed to look effortlessly cool. He’s alone: that’s why I pick him. I wait one, two, three, four seconds – and there it is. I watch as his hand slithers down to the pocket of those ridiculously tight jeans of his, and I watch as it emerges again with the addition of a stylishly tiny mobile phone. Passers-by that saw this would think he must just be bored – but passers-by wouldn’t see that revealing expression of relief flash across his face as he grasped his handset. He doesn’t just want that technology, he needs it, and that’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.

Michael

Train stations are scary places. The sheer number of bodies pressing in from every direction (I’d say approximately three per square foot at any given time) is almost enough to make me turn back. Almost, but not quite. I start counting in thirty-twos in my head, because sometimes when I’m nervous or scared it helps to concentrate on something that is always a constant and always makes sense. And I choose thirty-two because I can remember being the only person in my class in 1996, which as when I was in Year One, that knew the answer to sixteen multiplied by two, which is thirty-two. And it made me happy then and so it makes me happy now, and that is what is called Emotion by Association.

But suddenly I have to stop counting (and I can tell it hasn’t been long because I am only on 288) because a man bumps into me and it is hard to concentrate when you’re being bumped into.

The man’s hair is orange and he has seven badges pinned to his jacket: five on the left, two on the right. The fact that he touched me has made me feel nervous, and suddenly I am aware of every sensation in my body. My glasses are rubbing and my trainers are too tight, my hair’s tickling my ears and my stomach is on a rollercoaster and nothing feels RIGHT and…

And that’s why I’ve got to get out of here.

Dean

I walk through the crush and I am sickened by every second of it. It’s just so loud – and every sound is different.

Thumping bass and manic pop-punk and screeching brakes and inane chatter and a thousand other sounds fight for space in my eardrums and the effect is jarring.

And then suddenly I see him again: the twitching guy I knocked into earlier. And he is a pocket of quiet in this sea of noise. He walks past me with measured steps and stares resolutely at the floor. He is the only sole in this place that is, absolutely and completely, keeping himself to himself. And I like that a lot.

But as soon as he’s past me it’s like a TV being turned on, quite suddenly, in my head. I start to notice the noises again: a hysterical electro-pop murder of music in particular. I recognise it vaguely as the latest number one; and that’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.

Michael

As long as I keep looking down, nothing can touch me. As long as I keep looking down, nothing can touch me. As long as I keep looking down-

I recognise the orange-haired man’s shoes as soon as they come into view, even though I didn’t see them when he bumped into me earlier. They are dark green and red, barely more than loosely held together strips of material, and I just know that they are his – they have to be.

I keep my head down until I’m well past the shoes (and, in turn, the man) in question, then risk a quick glance behind me. I watch the back of his bouncing tangerine head as it retreats towards the ticket office, and I think about his colours. Everything he’s wearing is muted: moss green and burgundy, straw and peach. He looks like a TV screen with the saturation turned down, and it calms me and lets me breathe a little easier. As long as I can remember I’ve been worried by colours that are too bright because it feels like they’re invading my head. And when there’s no space left in your head, how’re you supposed to think? The idea of not being able to think scares me more than anything else in the world, and that’s why I’ve got to get out of here.

Dean

I pass twitching-boy again as I make a bee-line for the sandwich bar. His hand are planted each side of the timetable board and he’s staring deep into it like it holds the secrets to life’s greatest mysteries. Maybe, to him at least, it does. The fact that he’s using the long-forgotten, printed on paper (actual PAPER, man! From trees!) board makes me smile. Because nowadays who needs the humble timetable sheet when all the information you need (and a lot you don’t want) flashes at you from electronic screens every way you turn?

I make my decision almost instantly, because I am a man that believes in everything happening for a reason. I resolve that I see this boy once more before I get on my train, then I will go over and talk to him, no matter what. Because maybe I’m seeing him around so much for a reason.

With this resolve made, my steps are lighter as I continue on my way towards my immediate goal: a ridiculously overpriced but so satisfying I don’t care chicken and mayo baguette. But the bloke that serves me this culinary masterpiece is nothing short of unkind, and it makes me feel sick.

In what should have been a simple exchange of money and goods, he manages to make a grand total of six derogatory statements about my appearance, voice, attitude and general demeanour. He even passes comment on my hair (which is orange, by the way. And I mean orange – I dye it with clementines). He ends our exchange with the stunningly witty:

‘Aight mate, enjoy that butty yeah? Only meal you’ll ‘ave for another week like, know wha’ I mean?’

His ignorant cackle rattles through me as I exit the shop, and that’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.

Michael

Timetables have columns and numbers and orders. If you want to find something out on a timetable, all you have to do is run your fingers down the appropriate columns until you get to the corresponding box, and there’s your answer. But life is not at all like timetables, and that scares me, and that’s why I’ve got to get out of here.

Dean

I wander down the corridor and the crowd filters around me (because if you get too close to an orange-haired man he’ll try to inject drugs into you or something). Anxious boy catches my attention quite suddenly and I’m not even surprised: this kind of thing always seems to happen once I’ve made a resolve.

He’s huddled in the corner of a strictly-coffee caf� in the classic ‘leave me alone’ pose – but I figure if I don’t live by my own rules, what am I living for? I stride in the direction of his table, my thoughts wavering more than my legs.

Michael

I see the man with the orange hair approaching in plenty of time, but for some reason I don’t get up and leave like I would if I realised that anyone else was coming my way. I sit and I wait and I feel an emotion which I don’t feel very often which I think might just be anticipation.

Dean

I don’t think he’s seen me. I hope I don’t make him jump.

Michael

I think he knows I see him. I hope he doesn’t think it’s an invitation.

Dean

I think he’s seen me now, and he’s not getting up. It’s like it’s an invitation.

Michael

He gets to my table and hesitates for only a second before pulling out a chair and settling himself down opposite me. He begins to talk, and the conversation goes something like this:

‘I keep seeing you around here. It’s like it’s fate or something.’

This isn’t a question, so I don’t answer it.

‘Uh…what’s your name?’

‘Michael.’

(And then I add, because I know this is polite):

‘What’s yours?’

‘Dean. Dean Sutton. I don’t really like my name though, y’know? Think I’d suit something a bit more, like, dynamic or something…’

‘Like Archibald?’

Dean Sutton laughs until he sees my straight face, then gives a little cough and amends:

‘Yeah. Yeah, maybe like Archibald.

So, um…what’re you here for?’

He flicks a long-fingered hand lazily around the caf� and raises his eyebrows slightly.

‘I came here to sit and calm down because train stations are scary places and we have a caf� like this at home which I’m allowed to go to sometimes if I’ve been polite all day. So it’s like a familiar place even though it isn’t the same really.’

Dean Sutton raises his eyebrows again which I don’t like because I don’t know what he means when he does this. But then he starts to speak again, so it’s ok.

‘Woah. Um…yeah…I meant, like, what’re you in the station for? Like, where you going?’

‘Oh. I’m going to Denbigh, in Wales. It’s a nice place; I saw it on the television.’

‘Oh wow. That’s like, hours away. Why you going there?’

And this question stops me for a second because I know it’s one that requires a Big Answer and I have to think for a little bit before I reply. I think about how nice Dean Sutton has been to me so far, and about his colours, and about how I haven’t seen the little ‘SPECIAL NEEDS’ thought bubble appear above his head once during this whole conversation. I consider all these things and I decide that I should tell Dean Sutton the truth: about my parents, about the people at school, about the thought bubbles – everything. And so that is what I do.

Dean

As this kid talks he gives me hope. His life is empty Xboxes and iPods and electric blankets and Myspace, and it’s filled with people and ideas and quality time and dreams.

His name is Michael and he doesn’t shorten it to Mike to make himself sound cooler. He likes animals and making plans and when he goes to his friend’s house he doesn’t spend the entire time texting his other friends that aren’t there.

I learn that he lives near Alexandra Palace, which is a fifteen minute walk away from my flat. And this makes me think about all the other people I’ve never met, in this city alone. And it makes me wonder just how many of them might even see the world like I do. And these are thoughts which excite me.

Michael

It feels good to talk. It feels especially good to talk to Dean Sutton, because he is a stranger and I can tell him anything I want because he has no frame of reference for these things because they are my things. Essentially, this means I am always right.

It’s also nice to talk to Dean because he is what is called a Good Listener. As I tell him something I know that his mind is totally focused on what I’m saying, and it’s not just busy planning what he’s going to say next.

And this gives me a sense of worth.

Dean

I start to tell Michael a little about why I want to get away. I recite words which have floated around my head for almost three years: but suddenly I find they mean little to me right now. All the things I’ve been thinking seem insignificant in the face of this proof sitting right here in front of me: this living roof that there is more to life than the ignorant victims of ‘modern living’ that usually seem to clog up my existence.

I am excited and I am inspired, more than I have been in years.

Michael

Dean’s eyes are glowing and my hands are shaking – I think this might just be what’s called Engaging Conversation. I begin to think about Denbigh, in Wales, and how the whole point of me going there is to get away from people and questions and eye contact, and just to live my own life. And then I think about how if I do go to Denbigh, in Wales, then I probably won’t ever participate in Engaging Conversation ever again. And that is a thought that scares me.

Dean

This city is no long a breeding ground for individuals that all look the same and hardcore kids that still live with their parents. It’s a whole world of potential kindred spirits with thoughts in their heads and stories to tell, most of whom I’ve never even laid eyes on yet.

Michael

Dean makes complicated things seem simple and understands because he listens. It seems incredibly strange to think that a few hours ago we’d never met – and incredibly scary too. He’s even made me see my situation at home in a different light – and this is it:

If I just talk to my parents like I’ve been talking to Dean, they’ll understand, right? Because it only took him about half an hour to get it, and he doesn’t even have all my parents’ experience, you know?

This is what I’m saying about Dean making things simple: I suddenly can’t imagine seeing things any other way.

Dean

This guy is hope, and that’s why I think I better stay here.

Michael

This guy is friendship, and that’s why I think I better stay here.

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