There is a boy called Michael.
Michael is willowy, pale; he walks with long, low strides, arms straight down by his sides as stiff rods of iron thrust down his coat sleeves. His fingers are working, always jerking with thumb pressed against alternate finger pads. His head is filled with integers and fractions that converge, divide, multiply every sweet insentient object that he takes in. Michael’s pupils swim like tadpoles behind thick lenses; he looks through you with that strange, blank page of a face – an ambivalent guest from a planet far away.
For whole weekends, to the edge of the town’s satellite estate, Michael perches on the modest hump of a lonely island roundabout. He arrives with the unheard dawn chorus , placing his packed lunch on a faded ‘Britain in Bloom’ sign. Michael sits. And he sits. And he sits. Always bolt upright. Always as still as can be. Cars wheel round: long streams of colour and sound, a kaleidoscopic cacophony of horns and gear changes and whining brakes and scratching exhaust pipes. Hey you freaky wierdo – what you doin’?
Michael sees the number plates: every one that comes past. Vehicles pass, all colours, all makes, all marks. Mk III Peach Ford Cortina GLX. Blink. Capture. Vauxhall Viva HC. Red. Blink. Capture. Austin Allegro. 1973. Pea-green. Blink. Capture. Connections, patterns everywhere.
Hey! Tell Michael the colour and make of your dad’s car. Go on. Betchya he can tell you the number plate! NAT 233A. Or, no – Tell Michael your dad’s number plate! He’ll say it back, quick as you like: Capri Mercury 2600. Three door. Blue. Tell Michael your birthday – he’ll tell you what day you were born on. Third of December, 1968? A Tuesday. Freaky or what?
Ask Michael if you wants to come to your party. You coming along, Michael? Blank look. Just kidding!
No blink. No capture. Nothing.
Then there is another boy. A boy called Nigel.
One day, outside the gates before school, Nigel’s mum asks your mum if you might want to Nigel’s after school. He hasn’t really made that many friends, you see. And your lad seems like quite a nice little boy. Quiet. The sort of boy that Nigel might, well… get on with?
So you go to Nigel’s for tea. Your mum says, Take your new set of racing cars – the Formula One ones you bought with your holiday money. He’ll like those! Because your mum really wants you to get on with Nigel. For Nigel’s mum’s sake. Nigel’s mum is really worried about him.
And you get to Nigel’s house and Nigel’s mum calls for him. But Nigel won’t come. So Nigel’s mum takes you by the hand and leads you up the stairs to a room. But it’s not like your room. It’s a very special room. There are millions of colourful little drawings spilling all over the walls: delicate flowers, girls in dresses and houses with little picket fences, queens and castles. Chiffon throws in pastel colours, shimmering above the bed, across the curtain rails. And there are dolls’ houses and little shoe boxes – all labelled and adorned with shining stones and glitter – all arranged in neat rows around the skirting boards, with dolls’ clothes, neatly pressed and immaculately folded inside each. There aren’t toys like your toys. There are girls’ toys. Dresses and hairbrushes, bears in bonnets and tiny shopping baskets. Mermaids and ballet dancers, spinning and diving from the ceiling on lengths of coloured string. A private universe that no-one will ever see, because to open the door to the real world would be to invite jeers, ridicule: Nigel the Poofter! Nigel the Bender! Gay-boy Nigel!
So there is Nigel – sitting on a tartan picnic blanket, pale legs tucked right under him to one side; he’s having a tea-party with some of his dolls. And he’s got his mum’s shoes on. Nigel’s mum is watching your face. Carefully. Anxiously. Oh, Nigel, she says, suddenly; I thought I told you to tidy your dolls away under the bed. Where’s that nice Kevin Keegan football game that I told you to get out – the one Uncle Keith got you last Christmas? Look, Nigel! He’s brought some lovely new racing cars!
But Nigel isn’t interested in your cars. He moves them to one side, and they disappear under his bed. He pats a space on the floor beside himself, and you sit down. He pours three pretend cups of tea: one for Sarah-Louise, his favourite doll, the other for you, one for himself. Fascinated,you watch his delicate slender fingers, nails painted sea green, pinch the tiny handles of the china teacups before raising them to the pursed lips of his doll. He passes the other little china cup to you. You take tiny sips too.
Nigel’s mum stands for a while, clasping and unclasping her hands before finally slipping out of the room, satisfied. An hour passes like a minute, a life inside the delightful ulterior universe of Nigel’s imaginations: under-water tea-parties, dressing up games shops, Shetland pony gymkhanas and proper manners. A safe place of sleepy charms and gentle lullabies. A world away from racing cars, Batman, Top Trumps.
A distant doorbell. It’s your mum! Time to go! Then… They’ve both had such a lovely time! I do hope he can come back again soon!
A sad pang. For, once back outside and into the ‘real’ world of Action Men, Liverpool FC and grazed knees, you know you will never let any of your friends know that you have spent time in Nigel’s house. And you know that you will never return to collect your racing cars.
The next week, Nigel is playing ‘kitchens’ with some of the girls next to the oil tank in the school playground. You keep your eyes trained to the ground as you walk past with your regular friends, for fear of his trying to say hello; and for deeper fears of having to read the disappointment in his face, and he the shame in yours.
For you are too young to know that, for Nigel, and for Michael, the dye has been cast. At some point before they had ever been born, even conceived; their wiring has been pre-planned, re-cast, to create something different, something that will help shape the world and the experience of being human into a better, more wonderful thing.
Here and now, you are too young to know about prejudice, or resilience, or defeat. Or to know that sometimes you get sad purely because you are different too – as, indeed, does everyone. But your time will come. And, in years to come, the world will become more beholden to the round pegs in square holes.