The boy has an expanding collection of Ordnance Survey maps, branching out radially from his village. His village sits in the basin of an old glacial lake which escaped twenty thousand years ago through a gap in the topography. Trains and barges pass through the gap now. He watches people whizz or float past by day, and listens to trains rumbling through the countryside at night. He finds it relaxing. It helps to silence his mind, enables him to find sleep.
He couldn’t live further from the sea, but when the trains aren’t running, he listens to his Harbour Sounds CD, and imagines himself high up on the Island, watching the waves and the little fishing boats, the orange and blue buoys bobbing up and down. He walks around the Island, pausing at each bench to re-read the inscriptions: Ted and Anne – who loved this place; Winifred – whose light shone like a beacon – he recalls them all, traces their fading dates with his finger, looks surprised when he catches his own reflection in their shiny plaques.
For two weeks each year he visits this place. The countdown begins months in advance, and he likes to convert months to minutes, days to seconds – just for fun, and nobody checks his calculations anymore, because he’s always right. Maps are retrieved from his room, which cover the route from beginning to end. He knows every road, and better still, each river – Itchen, Avon, Blind Yeo, Lox Yeo, Axe, Brue, Huntspill, King’s Sedgemoor Drain… and that’s only half way. They drip off his tongue and head for the sea. Everything’s heading for the sea. The motorway branches off in tributary roads as he nears his destination. He’s going right to the end, as far as the roads can carry him, until he is surrounded on three sides by sea, endless sea.
He’s wearing his new trainers, size eights, but still remembers the old ones he was persuaded to leave at home. It’s got easier to leave things behind, but he can’t help but feel sorry for old things which are no longer useful. He regrets that he’ll never walk the Island in those shoes again. He likes the new ones though. They are yellow and blue with a Velcro strap. It’s hard to find Velcro straps when you’re a size eight. That’s what his mother and the shoe shop lady said. But they managed it. Sometimes he suspects that people pass comments just to make him feel bad about the things he has difficulty with, like tying shoe laces, and looking at melted cheese…
He’s well aware that it’s his fault his family are unable to eat out at Pizza Palace, and despite trying his hardest to sit opposite an oozing slab of rubbery cheese, retching is involuntary. It tends to put everyone off their food, which defeats the object of dining out, unless of course you’re going mainly for the social interaction. He retches at tomatoes, he retches at soup, baked beans are bothersome. Don’t even mention scrambled eggs. Mixed-up things. Why? He needs solid things in his life but everything is dripping away.
It’s always a good start to the journey if the motorway is reached in under an hour and without the speed limit being exceeded. Forty eight minutes is the record (2011, with only a couple of minor speed violations), and today it takes fifty three. Luckily there were no turning backs for forgotten phones or wallets, which is always frustrating, and the traffic is light. It’s the school holiday, so his family have set off early. He found it amazing to be up at 5 am, to see the red glow spreading out across the sky, hear the dawn chorus, but it made it even more difficult to concentrate on dressing quickly. He has learned to identify wren, robin, blue tit and blackbird from their song alone, and intends to learn more. It’s easy to be distracted when there are so many things to discover.
Experts decided that he has a slow processing speed back when he was nine (he’s thirteen now), and it’s something which is still repeated and used as a stick to beat him with (metaphorically speaking – and yes, he understands metaphor too). They decided that it takes his brain longer than most to convert instructions to actions, and so they recommended that everyone should speak slowly to him. In short sentences. Despite him having an IQ in the top 1% for his age (another test they did). He knows that the processing thing is nonsense, but he can no longer be bothered to protest. He just has no motivation to do the things they want him to do, in the time frame they’ve deemed acceptable.
But for now he must live in whichever box they’ve put him in, labelled Asperger’s, ASD, or Autism – it’s always changing. Although today he’s escaping his box, embracing change (because sometimes he can do that too), and heading south, well, south west to be exact, where nobody has any preconceptions about him, where the pasty man doesn’t consult a user manual before asking for his order. The ice cream seller recognises him now, knows that he has two mini flakes wrapped in a paper napkin, while his sister orders an ice cream with sprinkles, sauce, the lot.
Halfway through the journey they stop at the usual service station where there is a disabled toilet which you don’t need a special key for. Sometimes he gets disapproving looks from people when he comes out, but his mother says he doesn’t have to explain himself. Who would understand that the noise of the hand dryers is painful? It makes his head implode. That noise on top of the grating locks, flushing toilets… The business and bustle. The succession of expressionless faces filing in, filing out, reminding him of the army of stickmen he had to draw feelings on during his sessions with the school psychologist. He was terrified of making someone look sad when they were supposed to look thoughtful. How to distinguish between upset and angry? It was hard to get it right. Strange that she failed to read his own expression: insulted.
The toilet break is soon over, parental tea or coffee purchased and precariously balanced on the pull down tray in the front of the car (the scene of several disasters on previous journeys), and on they travel. The boy has studied his maps so often that he knows the names and heights of all the hills. When he looks around he imagines brown contour lines, arranging everything by height. The highest point he’ll drive over today will be Minzies Downs on Bodmin (301 metres above sea level), and the highest point he’ll be able to see from the rear passenger side will be High Willhays on Dartmoor (621 metres). He knows all the lows too, with the lowest inland point he’ll pass over being where the M5 crosses the River Brue in Somerset (5 metres). He visualises a topographical transect passing from his house (122 metres), to the sea, the undulations, the roads carrying everyone to and from the sea. To-ing and fro-ing. Perpetual motion.
The facts he offers to his fellow passengers tend to fall on deaf ears these days, whereas they used to amaze. How could he remember so much? When he was five he learned everything he could about dinosaurs, at seven it was space. He discovered maps at ten, and despite a few enthusiastic dalliances (vintage tractors, number plates, dialects), it’s still mostly maps. He likes to visit high places and spot far-off hills floating on the horizon. From the hill near his village he can see 55 miles, on a clear day, to Clee Hill, Shropshire. The highest number of counties he’s ever seen from one spot is 24 (but nobody believes him). He knows where the boundaries are, both county and parish. The landscape is mapped and measured. Change is slow. Hills will rise, erode, and rivers will carve quicker routes out to sea, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry.
During the final stretch of the journey, place names leap out at him: Ventongimps, Goonhavern, Marazanvose, so alien, yet so familiar. He speaks them aloud, and because everyone is excited now, they listen. He makes a mental note of which song is playing on the CD player as they enter St. Ives, and descend the hill into town. Last year it was Paradise by Coldplay, but today it’s Don’t Ever Change by the Lightning Seeds. He locks this information away for next time.
He gets his first view of the Wharf, jutting out into the sparkling silver sea. The tide is in, and boats are moving around the harbour. He looks for the Isla Bea, his favourite. It was a mackerel boat when he started coming here, but now it takes tourists on trips to Seal Island and Zennor. It’s yellow. Yellow is his favourite colour. The streets look busy down there, but he knows all of the side roads and secret cobbled paths which wind around the town, bypassing the masses of people who amble aimlessly along. He knows the best spot to watch the sun set, and it’s at night that he loves it most. The lights glimmering on the sea, the background buzz of people safely cocooned in cafes and restaurants, while he walks, unhindered and carefree.
He listens to the seagulls from his bed at night, and thinks he can hear the faint murmur of a train on the branch line, carrying the day-trippers away. But he’s here to stay, at least for a fortnight. He pictures his little house, landlocked in the centre of the country, bobbing around in its sea of green, uprooting itself and searching for a gap in the hills. It escapes -with part of him inside. He watches it drift further and further away, until at last it disappears, and nobody misses it, or even realises that it has gone.