Walking The Grandson

FEATURE by Willard Manus

David is seven, autistic, and lives in Glasgow with his mother (my daughter), his father and a younger brother. On a recent visit, I am given the task of taking him for a daily morning walk which is a summer substitute for the special school he normally attends.

Out the door of the house on Winton Drive we go, in a light rain. David stops immediately to kick at the loose gravel in the driveway--and to give the first of his many cries and yawps. Then he crosses to the nearby rubbish bins and begins beating on them with his fists. I watch and wait. Finally, "Come on, David."

He turns away and looks up at me with his lightly freckled face and his wistful grey-green eyes. "Ah-po-cah," he says, reaching for my jacket pocket.

"Not yet," I tell him. "Later." I tug him forward.

We leave the driveway, but instead of heading down Winton Drive, he spins and tries to enter the front yard of the neighboring house.

"This way, David," I say, pulling lightly at him again.

He starts down the hill, eyes down, studying the cracks and patterns in the sidewalk. He moves slowly in seemingly choreographed fashion: one leg takes a step, the other curls behind it, then kicks at the pavement. Kick step kick.

He stops short and utters several piercing cries. Claps his hands, looks skyward, clucks his tongue and starts moving again.

We go down the hill like that, at his herky-jerk pace, passing the student dormitories belonging to Glasgow University. We come to a green electrical transformer box which he begins kicking spiritedly.

"Come on, David, come on!"

He moves on, then pauses to gaze up at a light pole. Puts hand to mouth and emits some strange new sounds: "Ut aww...bat-kee..gree...gree...gree."

Takes my hand obediently as we cross the road where Winton intersects with Balshaugh Road, then darts ahead to thump away at the side door of the Scottish Mask & Puppet Centre (which is closed for the summer). His next targets are the loose slats in the iron fence fronting the Centre. Whack whack whack!

Finally satisfied, he moves along, only to stop short and flail his hands around, as if fighting off a swarm of wasps. Then he begins jumping up and down, letting out some loud, hideous shrieks.

To calm him down, I tap him on the shoulder and give him what he asked for earlier, a piece of dried apricot. David chews and swallows quickly, holds out a hand for more. "Ah-po-cah." I accomodate him.

He heads toward the gate of the soccer field attached to Riverside Academy (also closed for the summer). Gates are David's favorite target; he loves to tug on them, rattle their chains and locks, bash away at them.

When we reach a cobbled-stoned lane called Kirklee Gardens, he swings left and heads down it. There are three more gates back here, all of which he assaults noisily and happily.

Riverside Academy sits well off Balshaugh Road, fronted by a balustrade. The sandstone archway over the Academy's main entrance has been newly blighted with orange-spray graffiti: "Posh cunts" and a woman's face.

David walks on, then stops short and stares up at the trees which are canopying us from the rain. Then he pulls his hood off, revealing his curly light-brown hair. Makes clicking and clucking noises with his tongue.

To get him moving again, I hand him a bit of dried cherry. At one time David got sweets on these walks until a social worker told my daughter that sugar was bad for a hyperactive kid like him.

Hand in hand, we cross the busy intersection of Kirklee and Balshaugh and enter the Botanic Gardens. I try to hurry David along, but he has rekindled his step kick step kick routine. As we inch our way up a steep slope, surrounded by trees, flowers and shrubs, David stops short again, puts hand to mouth and utters a few new noises: "Gree gree gree...kahkaww kahkaww."

When I pluck at his sleeve and try to urge him along, he turns and lashes out with an angry kick.

"No kicking, David, no kicking!"

He pinches me instead, as hard as he can. He also tries to claw at my face, but I'm ready for this, having seen him bloody his father's face yesterday.

I shout, "No, David, no!"

I give him a shake but am immediately sorry for it. Musn't let him get to me.

His eyes are glowering at me. I lower my voice. "Let's go to the swings."

He eases up and we resume walking. Birds skitter around everywhere: blue tits, great tits, sparrows, even a spotted woodpecker.

Finally we reach the children's play area. In addition to the swings, there is a slide, a kiddie house, various other amusements. David ignores it all and starts striding downhill, toward the Botanical exhibits and a nearby canteen.

"No ice cream," I say loudly.

"Ahh ahhhh ahh," David begins whining and jumping up and down. I hold on tightly, fully expecting him to throw a tantrum.

Surprise. He not only quits fighting me but enters the play area and looks around. Spying a woman on a nearby bench who is feeding a young child, he suddenly darts at her and tries to snatch the biscuit out of her hand.

I pull him away with an apology. David shoots me a cheeky little look, then heads toward a hillock where there was a solitary seesaw. Begins to rock up and down on it, making loud, gleeful noises.

I wander off and make a serendipitous discovery. Nestled in among the flower beds is a slab of black marble whose gold lettering reads:

"In memory of our fallen comrades who died in America in the atrocities of 11th Sept. 2001. Our heartfelt condolences go to their families and loved ones from the Fire Brigade union members, Scottish region."

I stand, deeply moved, then turn away to collect my grandson and commence our return journey, retracing all of our previous steps along the way.