by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

Alan picked a set of clothes off the trolley. Shirt. Trousers. Pants. Just as they come. One size fits all. 

Actually it didn’t – but you learned to judge. If you were dressing a bulky child like Kim you’d put an obviously small pair of trousers back on the pile and choose another. He sat on the bed and watched Kim putting his pants on. The boy’s movements were clumsy and imprecise, but at least they were directed. He had a notion of putting pants on and how to go about the task. When there was time, and they weren’t rushed, they’d let Kim dress himself, or at least put his pants on. 

Watching him, Alan was struck by the fact that problem-solving was deemed a superior intellectual activity only because of the social approval which a small class of problem solvers could command. People who could lecture on their solutions and write papers about them. Yet life was full of problems to be solved – and who’s to say that one class of problem is inherently more difficult than another? Once you allowed for familiarity that wasn’t at all clear. There must be an astronomical number of ways of putting pants over your feet, but only one that ended up with the pants the right way round and untwisted and the label at the back where it should be. Solving this humble, but far from trivial problem would give Kim such a sense of satisfaction. Alan knew that it would set him up for the day. 

Another thing that Alan was learning in his day-to-day contact with children with learning difficulties, was that they weren’t aliens. Their brains were just like his – only slower. That, in many cases, was the only difference. But it was the critical difference for independent living in a harshly competitive society. 

Alan was beginning to develop an interest in problem solving per se – not just the solution to a certain class of problems, as his mathematics classes had taught him. If he ever came to design artefacts for daily living, articles of clothing, underpants, he would test them out using children with learning difficulties. They would encounter all the same problems that normal people do with these products, but they would not cover them up or gloss over them. Questions of efficiency, of bad design, of appropriateness for use, would be dissected and laid out for all to see like a frog in a biology class. 

There would be side-benefits. It would provide a valued occupation for people who, currently, were viewed as an overhead – a burden on society. Only a wasteful society squanders such a precious resource as a child with learning difficulties. 

Alan’s flight of fancy was brought rudely to a halt by the sound of the attack alarm. Nursing assistants scrambled out of the corridors and along between the rows of beds in the boy’s ward. Pye was behind him as he ran. He knew something about the new admission to the 3DO which Alan didn’t – he had been there when the phone call came through. 

“Watch this guy, Alan – he’s a veteran of pub brawls. A nasty piece of work.”

It really seemed like a pub brawl when they got to it. They stepped past a policeman picking himself off the floor. Alan could see now the reason for the flimsy canvas-backed chairs. You can’t do a whole lot of damage with a canvas chair when you swing it. But it was still a force to be reckoned with. 

Pye and Alan flung themselves at the patient. Rugby football had never been Alan’s strong point at boarding school and now he was smartly repelled by a foot thrust in his stomach. 

He must have thought himself momentary out of the fray, the leisurely way with which he picked himself up. But the patient had long given up any hope of escape. The problem, as he saw it now, was how best to employ his limited resources to inflict the maximum lasting damage on the softest target. 

“You, you bloody poncer – I’ll tear your bloody throat out!”

With that, taking the people holding him by surprise with his sudden change of attention, he launched himself on Alan like a puma. Alan tried to thrust away a savagely distorted face but his palm slipped on saliva. 

Suddenly the action was frozen. Just in time – something had caused the man to hold back from biting into his Adam’s apple. The savage face was still locked in the same rictus as it came gradually away from his neck, but it was reddening noticeably. Alan could see Pye’s forearm locked around the man’s throat in a stranglehold. Smoothly he raised the man backwards on to his feet. 

“OK – get it in now,” said Pye. The charge-nurse from Women’s Psychiatric, feeling past Pye’s loins for the man’s buttocks, swiftly inserted the heavy hypodermic. 

The patient was still screaming abuse as he was frogmarched to the bed. It may have relaxed his muscles but it hadn’t diminished his shouting and cursing one bit. 

“It doesn’t seem to have made a lot of difference to him,” said Alan, dusting himself down, as policemen and nursing assistants picked themselves up from the floor, straightening their clothing and feeling themselves for breaks and sprains. 

“At least he’s doing his swearing from the prone position,” said Pye. He put his arm protectively on Alan’s shoulder. “How are you now, kiddo?” 

“All right – I think.” 

“Take it easy…” He turned to Schank. “Think you can handle it down here?” 

“No problem. The worst is over.” He looked round Pye’s shoulder and waved. “Thanks for your help…” 

The three policemen took their leave and filed out the front door. The charge-nurse raised a finger in farewell and made for the stairs to exit via Ward 14.

“Well,” said Pye, “Alan and I’ll go back upstairs and finish dressing the kids.” 

They trudged up the stairway, drooping like players after a rough match. 

“I think you saved my bacon back there,” said Alan. “If you hadn’t got him off me when you did…”

“All in a day’s work,” replied Pye. “Don’t think about it.”

…to be continued.


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