Part of Sammy’s condition was that he was very single minded. Taking on sole responsibility for the dog training was a grave responsibility and one that he flung himself into, heart and soul.
He learned to talk to Carthenage in simple terms, but even when he forgot and gave the dog lengthy and in-depth commands that would have confused Einstein himself, Carthenage took it with good heart. He would cock his head left and right and wag his tail madly at his beloved master. Being deeply autistic wasn’t a completely negative condition, as well as his ability to use his brain differently to most of us; his autism meant that Sammy didn’t suffer from impatience. When Carthenage didn’t immediately respond to a command in the way that Sammy intended, he would simply put him back into the, sit, or, down, position and ask him again.
Shelly watched the training sessions, carefully. The dog was so young that he tired easily. His attention span was nowhere near as great as Sammy’s and, when necessary, she’d intervene to give the dog some down time. But, for the most part, training to Carthenage was just one big game. He loved every minute of it. Even so, at the weekend, usually sometime in the afternoon, Shelly would separate dog and boy, for the dog’s sake. She’d put Carthenage in the garage where he had toys and a comfortable bed and allowed him to just be a dog for a couple of hours.
Carthenage was bright and Sammy was patient and the training came along well. In no time, he was obedient and did as he was told when asked. It didn’t stop him being a fiend when he wasn’t actually being trained and, when separated from his Sammy, he would howl for hours. Boy and dog became like one being, where one was, the other was at his heels.
Within a week of him coming to live with them, Carthenage could jump all over Sammy. In fifteen years, the boy had not been able to tolerate physical contact. Sammy was never happy about being licked, he was desperately worried about germs and contamination, Carthenage learned this, without physical reproach, and on occasions when it happened, Sammy, surprisingly, took it in his stride. Shelly had bought him mouth wash for the times when Carthenage took him off guard and managed to lick his mouth, the rest of the time, Sammy would just make him sit and stay while he went into the bathroom to wash.
Watching them frolic and bounce and play, Sammy seemed like any other fifteen year old. Shelly envied the closeness and affection that the dog could elicit from her son. Although Carthenage and Sammy had normal human to dog contact, Sammy had not relaxed his phobia about being touched with anybody else.
Once the basics had been established, and inspired by a dog act on The X Factor, he taught Carthenage increasingly elaborate tricks and Carthenage took to each new game with delight. Sammy never tried of teaching him.
Sammy couldn’t go out walking alone. He was competent enough and would easily be able to learn a route and stick to it. The problem wasn’t with him, but with the cruelty of the town’s youth. For the first time in his life, this became an issue. He’d always been happy at home; he had no friends, apart from his schoolmates. He wasn’t a sociable person and attempts to integrate him into groups or activities had never gone well.
When Carthenage needed walking in the evening and at weekends Sammy took his responsibility very seriously and adhered to his learning by the letter. Shelly and John cursed the writer who said that a young dog could easily walk fifteen miles a day. By combining the words of several books, and taking a happy average, they managed to talk Sammy down to three miles a day. Split between two walks morning and night. A mile and a half, and more at the weekend, was doable.
Shelly only felt slightly guilty when she gave her word that she would walk him every day while Sammy was at school. Mostly, she didn’t, they had a large garden and taking turns with John in the evening was bad enough. John lost a stone and a half and Shelly nine pounds in the first three months. They both dreaded the onset of winter.
It was John who found the ramblers club. They didn’t mind dogs; in fact they actively encouraged them. John, Shelly, Carthenage and Sammy became weekend ramblers. Mostly active pensioners, the members took to Sammy, instantly. They took longer to become accustomed to his ways, but they were patient, and Sammy felt safe.
Shelly worried about him. She worried about him every day and every night. She had a morbid fascination with death—her and John’s death. What would become of Sammy when they died? Unless he had an accident or was struck down with an incurable disease, he would almost certainly outlive them. He would be all alone in the world. Shelly wasn’t afraid of spiders, or snakes, or ghosts, she was scared of Sammy being left on his own.
When he was five, and they had a pretty good idea of what to expect for the rest of his life, Shelly and John hit a rough patch. Shelly was devoted to Sammy, but John found him harder to cope with. His love for their son was never in question, but coping with his demands twenty four seven, was beyond difficult for both of them. Shelly coped. John didn’t.
Shelly wanted another baby. She had thought constantly about Sammy being left alone and she wanted a child to grow up and take over her role when they were gone. They were both chronically tired. Being exhausted went hand in hand with having a Sammy in your life. Even though Shelly took the brunt of the childcare, she managed her exhaustion and worked with it, and sometimes, against it, John didn’t. John had flatly refused to give her another child and they almost divorced. Neither of them went as far as leaving the home, neither of them had an affair. They suffered a lot of counselling, and their marriage was salvageable. What didn’t kill them possibly made them stronger.
Over the years Shelly had, from time to time, asked again for a baby. Her reasons hadn’t changed and each time she pleaded, John refused. While in therapy, he had told her that if she went behind his back and trapped him into fathering a child, their marriage would be over. Shelly had to sign a stupid contract to that affect. Contracts were one of their condescending counsellor’s tools for a solid marriage. Shelly often wondered if she made her husband sign one before having sex with him. ‘I will give you a blow job if you promise not to ejaculate in the shower again. Agreed? Good, sign here.’
They hit an even keel and Shelly learned to manage her fear which over time had grown to phobic proportions. But just as the moon orbits the sun every so often Shelly would bring up the age old argument.
They were talking about the relationship between Sammy and his dog and what would happen when the dog eventually died. This was a new worry for Shelly that played on her mind when she wasn’t worrying about Sammy after their death. John’s answer was simple, they would get another dog. Great, in theory, but Shelly wasn’t convinced that putting it into practice would be as simplistic as the answer. John said that they would worry about it when the time came. All well and good for him, but Shelly worried about it, now.
‘John, I want another baby?’
‘Because I’m thirty five, and my biological clock’s ticking.’
‘It is not bullshit.’
‘Shelly, we’ve been through this a hundred times before. Sammy takes up all of our time and attention; it wouldn’t be fair on the child, or you. Come on love, how would you cope?’
‘We,’ she emphasised the we, ‘would cope fine. For God’s sake John, lots of people with autistic kids go on to have more. It’s not the end of life as we know it.’
‘It feels like it sometimes,’ John said this on a bitter laugh.
‘And what, exactly, do you mean by that?’ She had the tone. As much as neither of them wanted it, they both knew that they were settling in for a humdinger of an argument. Shelly had known it from the moment she said the baby word.
‘Shelly, every minute of every day is concerned with Sammy. We have nothing, and do nothing that isn’t about him. Our conversation always revolves around him; it’s all you ever talk about. Where did our lives go in the last fifteen years, Shelly? And God help us, what about the next fifteen?’
‘He’s your son; you make him sound like a life sentence.’
‘And whether you like to admit it, nor not, that’s exactly what he is.’
‘John, please don’t talk about him like that, you know it’s only going to cause an argument. But if that’s truly the way you feel, surely you can see the sense in having another child. Just think, by the time he’s grown up, he, or she, could take care of Sammy. It would give us our lives back, bit by bit, until we could hand Sammy over into a family that loves him at the end of our days.’
It was the same old argument, going down the same old train tracks as always. ‘Sometimes you disgust me, Shelly, you don’t want another child, you want a grow-your-own-carer. What if our second child actually had the audacity to have a character all of their own? Just imagine this, Shelly, what if they had dreams and ambitions that didn’t include being a genetic arse-wiper for Sammy? God forbid, what if they wanted to have their own family, and rejected the idea of taking on our damaged, sloppy firsts.’ He had raised his voice as he lost control of his temper.
Shelly slapped his face and burst into tears. ‘How dare you speak about your son, like that, how fucking dare you.’
‘I know what we can do with him,’ John said, his eyes wide, his face mocking, adopting an expression of just having had a eureka moment. He wouldn’t slap back but he could hurt Shelly with cruelty, ‘We can bequeath him to a travelling circus and they can keep him in a cage, like in Victorian times. The fairgoers can poke him with their walking canes until he tells them the big news reports from the day that they were born. The owners will have to at least feed him something, to protect their investment. There you go, problem solved.’
She turned to walk away.
‘When was the last time that we made love, Shelly?’ he fired at her back. She stopped, turned and looked at him with tears tracking down her cheeks, but didn’t answer. ‘When was the last time that we actually succeeded in having full on, penetrative, go-until-the-end, sex? Oh, I don’t mean the last time we attempted anything resembling a love life. Do you remember that, Shelly? Do you? It was nearly two months ago, so you might have forgotten. We’d just got all romantic, settled down to business and there he is, standing outside the locked door shouting, Shelly Fucking May, at the top of his fucking voice. Couldn’t ignore him, could you? Couldn’t block it out, for five damned minutes, to pretend to be a proper wife. No, first time, last time, every fucking time, Sammy has to come first. What about me, Shelly? What about me?’
Shelly glared at him and left the room without another word.