23 Nov 2022

I had the dream again, for the first time in ages. The one where I’m running away. It’s so vivid I can feel my heart thumping out of time as I grab a suitcase and stuff it with clothes. I open the front door and step outside. The smell of fresh air fills me with hope and I start walking towards golden sunshine. I don’t know where I’m heading but it doesn’t matter because I’m free.

As I reach the end of the road dense clouds gather, heavy with rain. Invisible arms drag me back and I battle something shapeless pressing against my chest.

I wake up exhausted, sensing chaos, and hear a crash from the living room. Blundering out of bed I stumble downstairs.

The money tree Pete bought from the garden centre is lying on its side and there’s water all over the floor. The soil has softened creating a mud slick. Lottie wriggles in the mess, like a reptile.

‘Oh, sweetheart.’ Tears bubble up, but I can’t help smiling. She’s got her swimming goggles on and looks like a bug, grinning with inexplicable joy.

‘If she was a dog you wouldn’t give her house room,’ mum said, once, backing away from Lottie. In her book, autism was another name for bad behaviour. ‘No such thing when you were kids.’

I think she was scared, but we all were.

She hasn’t called round for ages.

"Come out of the way, darling." I step over sludge. "You might hurt yourself."

But she’s laying, naked and filthy, on the back of the sofa, purring gently.

"Get down sweetie, you’ll fall."

Her solemn eyes stare, lost in a distant landscape.

"You’ll fall," I repeat, as if struggling with a foreign language.

Marrying Pete, with his slow smile and gentle hands, gave me no cause for concern. When I fell pregnant we were smugly complacent. Our only rocky moment came with the diagnosis, just after Lottie’s second birthday, when Pete called the consultant a liar. It lay between us and we stopped talking for a while, which was probably for the best. We might have been tempted to blame each other.

"Let’s clear up and go to the park, shall we?"

I reach for the mop and start cleaning. She must have clambered over the gate at the top of the stairs. I shudder at this new complication.

"Good job we’ve got laminate," I say out loud.

Lottie stares, as if something about the shape of the words has touched her, then slips past and starts slamming doors.

I clean swiftly, careful not to disturb her Barbies lined up with their faces to the wall as if awaiting a firing squad.

Pete’s parents are hopeless.

"Not all animals live in the forest," his dad said last year, at a barbecue, nodding at Lottie crouched by the hedge like a refugee.

I didn’t tell Pete. He was still in denial then.

After bathing Lottie I have a shower with the door open, so I can see her on the landing, pulling her woolly tights on. Any interference from me will send her spiralling round the walls, incoherent with fury.

"Let’s get your hat on."

She lies on the floor and drums her heels. When I try to pick her up she makes her body limp and slithers away like an eel.
The walls press in.

"I feel like running away sometimes," I once blurted to an old friend I invited round.

"But you couldn’t!" She bounced her twins, wide-eyed with shock. "You’d feel so guilty, it wouldn’t be worth it."

"I know," I mumbled, feeling as guilty as if I’d already done it.

Outside, our breath smokes in the cold air but Lottie’s seems content to be in her pushchair. She’s got her coat on back to front and people stare.

I’m relieved the park’s deserted because Lottie hates sharing. I don’t want to explain about her all the time but I can’t bear people assuming that I’m a terrible parent.

"Maybe I am," I said to Pete, recently. "We should start going to the groups again, get some help."

"She doesn’t know," he said, sadly. "She’s happy in her little world, bless her. It’s us I feel sorry for."

Released from her pushchair, Lottie mounts the climbing frame, while I sit nearby enjoying the space. I try not to think about next year, when she’ll be big enough to scale the wooden fence bordering the play area.

"Push you on the swing?" I call, knowing she won’t want me to. She doesn’t like the swings, just as I never did. I enjoy thinking of us having something in common.

"Slide?" But she’s already there, pushing herself down before I can wipe away the raindrops.

The drizzle stops and I pull a letter from my bag. The school we applied to haven’t got a place for Lottie. They’ve recommended one we don’t have much faith in. A weight of worry settles on me.

Lottie tugs my jeans. She still has mud in her nails.

"What is it, sweetheart?"

Her face glows as she points upwards and I follow the line of her gaze. The sky has lightened, infusing the clouds with warmth. Lottie claps her hands. A rainbow, curving gracefully like a child’s drawing, has captured her attention. As we watch, a glimmer of sunshine deepens the pastel shades and Lotties’ sapphire eyes shine, reflecting the light.

"Mummy," she says and claps her hands again.

Something falls away from me as that precious word wraps itself around my heart. The park, the trees, everything seems illuminated.

"It’s a rainbow," I say, stroking her silky hair.

She’s said it a few times lately, probably doesn’t know what it means. She’ll have heard the other children as they spill from playschool, arms outstretched.

But still. There’s joy in reflection, in imagining all the words that might follow, one day.

I keep smiling, knowing that tonight my dreams will be sweet.

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