Knitting for teenage boys, 1988
It’s Jed here, on Earth.
I’m calling my home planet…
I’m calling because I, Jed Gibbs, want out.
This has gone on for too long and they’ve found us out. They’ve noticed we’re different; they know we’re not like them. I don’t think I can sustain their questioning – I will own up and then the shit hits the fan, to use an expression that I have just learnt. I like it. It’s American, but then again, this world’s culture and media are driven by the United States.
It started this morning, on the school bus. I sat in my usual place, by the window on the front, at the left. It’s the best position from which to exit the vehicle, if there is to be an accident. And, on these narrow lanes from the village, with twenty raucous school-children packed on board, that is highly likely, in my opinion. Plus, I am seated seven rows away from the toxic-smelling armpits of Duke Griffiths. I’ve never bothered learning the names of his associates. All are in the lower stream, and I can avoid these boys throughout my timetabling. But on the bus, I’m easy pickings.
I took up a hobby, as you suggested.
I chose one that would occupy my hands and my mind, giving me some mental stimulation for the duration of these journeys. So, I reached into my impractical and yet bang-on-trend rucksack, and take out my knitting. I have decoded the instructions and memorised them. I am making a jumper with a union jack symbolising the country of my residence. The yarn itself is shot through with strands of glittery metallic thread; I bought it with my pocket money in a small shop in town. I had not planned purchasing the sparkly stuff – my vision was simply distracted by it and I couldn’t resist.
Anyway, I take out my knitting, carefully extract the plastic coated needles and start a new row.
“’Ere – pansy boy. Whatcher doing wi’that?”
I do not answer. I can engage well in a two way conversation with others of my supposed species. However, I have learnt that Duke is unable to share ideas and thoughts with me. He is lacking in education and experience.
He reaches out a grubby hand and pulls at the wool, pinching it between finger and thumb. The manual dexterity of the human race astounds me. It’s almost what sets them apart from other mammals on this planet. Well, that and their supposedly large brains.
“Look a’ this boys. We got oursel’s a granny. A pansy and a granny. Lessee what ‘ee’s making?” He pulls, and my first four rows slip out of the bag, like a startled rabbit bolting from oncoming headlights.
“It’s a jumper, Duke.” I’ve read the self-help books. I know that I need to use his name to fully engage with him on an emotional level. To bring forth his – empathy. I don’t have empathy, though I’m good at faking it. But this creature – Duke – he has it – and he’s still cruel.
“Wow. Look at ‘is talent. I could wear this on a Sat’day night, I could.” He stretches my knitting over his chest and shimmies around. The bus swerves around a corner and he lurches. I wish he would fall, but he doesn’t. He grabs the hanging black plastic knob that sways from the ceiling. Now, I am fully exposed to a brutal mixture of Lynx Africa and his unwashed pits, seeping through his white nylon mix school-shirt.
I look down at my digital watch. I have five more minutes of this journey. I keep my face blank and expressionless, as always. The girl opposite me smiles at first, then she sticks up for me.
“Get a grip, Duke. Give it back to the poor guy.”
Charmaine – I recognise her by her hooped silver earrings and her unsavoury habit of chewing Wrigley’s gum –leans forward. She takes the knitting from Duke, taking it in her pastel pink nails, and passes it to me.
“Thank you kindly.” My voice comes out higher and louder than I have planned. This is an undesirable feature of human adolescence. I cough, and it returns to its previous husky low sound. She gives me a sidelong glance, eyes framed in blue eyeshadow. I catch a whiff of spearmint and my heart beats loud in my chest.
The bus screeches to a halt with a whine of airbrakes and a smell of burnt transmission fluid, at the school gates. Duke attempts to joust with another boy, using my knitting needles, as he bounces and bounds up to the heavy door.
Where was I?
Ah yes, making an SOS call to my home planet.
So – I am achieving well academically. I am taking up hobbies to enable me to blend in with my peer group, although this hasn’t yet worked out as planned. I listen attentively to my teachers, sit through incredibly dull un-stretching lessons, which have been written for lower life forms, and attempt to survive break-times with the minimum of injuries. I invariably wear the school uniform, including the regulation black leather shoes, which I polish before the start of the school day.
They’ve found me, though.
I had my first session with the Educational Psychologist today. Due to funding cuts, this may be my only session. Still, it is worth reporting. He wore a suit and a bow tie, which is not standard apparel for teachers at secondary school. So, whilst he sat at the back of my classroom, I observed him even as he was observing me.
Have there been others, who have been spotted?
I know that we have infiltrated the employment market at the highest possible levels. Our kind devised the space rockets in the seventies, our kind have been responsible for driving forwards medical advances, we could also be thanked for advanced weaponry and power stations the Earth over. So we’re out there, working hard.
As a youngling, I realise I am vulnerable. I sit in this quiet room with the psychologist, trying to answer his questions in a reasonable manner.
“Jed, isn’t it?”
I nod. “Jed Edward William Gibbs, fourteen Novia Scotia Place, Mawnan Smith, TR11 4HQ.” I breathe out, pleased with myself for remembering the new postcode. A clever system, that. I’m sure we put that in place.
He doesn’t introduce himself. All social convention would deem that he do so. I look at his chest, reading his badge. He scribbles on a pad of paper: ‘Lack of eye contact’.
“How’re you getting on at school?”
I’m not sure what he wants me to answer. I nod again, a little less sure of myself.
“Okay, what about subjects – which are your favourite?”
Adults always think children have a liking or disliking for these. It depends on the lesson, depends on the teacher. I answer him, in full sentences. I copy his intonation patterns, matching and mirroring his voice; using his exact inflections and phrases.
I can’t see where his questions are headed. So I ask, straight out. I look into his blue watery eyes and lean forwards, close enough to smell his off-breath and his cologne. He scribbles, biro scratching on cheap paper: ‘Inappropriate proximity’.
“Why am I here, please?”
“Ah.” He adjusts his bowtie, places his clipboard on the desk.
“Ah. You’re here because, Jed, your teachers, and your parents actually, are wondering whether you have something called, autism.”
And that’s when I know. That’s when I know they’ve got me. I catch the bus to my house, yarn trailing from my bag like a multi-coloured sparkly trail saying come get me! Come get me, police and servicemen, because Jed Gibbs has been spotted! They’ve spotted me, and now I will get taken away. Watched closely for a while, then taken away.
Before I called you tonight, I looked it up. Autism, I mean. It took a few hours. I re-booted the family PC and checked out the research. I surfed the internet – it’s early days but it’s going to be big, I know it – and read the precis’ of the evidence-based pieces. The early stuff from the seventies – well, I guess we weren’t as quick at covering ourselves as we are now. The test subjects were non-verbal, hadn’t bonded with their parent-hosts. They stood out and hence, were studied by scientists.
Now, we’ve got better. The more recent research looked at language assessments, psychological profiles. All specimens were children. Kids are still learning, for chrissakes! I mean, if kids like Duke haven’t grasped the basic social niceties – well, cut us some slack, please. An alien species like myself – despite superior intelligence – will take longer to master complex interactional behaviours.
The really recent stuff is the most interesting. These new brain-scanners they’ve got – well, even if I don’t feel fear in the conventional way, I’m alarmed by the accuracy of their results.
This is why I’m calling.
Our brains show up as different, on these scans.
They’ve found us.
There’s no response from the mothership. Honestly. This civilisation, if I can call it that, is light-years away from reliable interstellar communications. So I guess I will simply have to go back to school tomorrow and figure it out, to use another highly popular expression within my age-ranged peers.
I look down from the screen, hooking a finger into my school bag. Wool snags soft under my fingertips and I slide out the unfinished sweater, noticing that the glittery threads are scratchy on my palm. I work the stitches smooth and straight again. Reach up onto my shelf for a fresh pair of smooth, long needles to slot into the next row.
While mankind figures out how to accept us, we will be here to stay. I get knitting, and imagine myself resilient, wearing my finished sweater with pride. Tomorrow, I will sit in my place on the bus and tolerate the child-man called Duke. Let those in charge of my school label me, should they wish to do so.
I will remain calm and carry on being, as they call me, autistic.