The Walk Home

A complicated flirtation with an older neighbor

Roy was a landmark. Everyone who had cause to walk or drive or ride the number 12 bus up or down Tongdean Lane noted his presence just before the narrow, sooty tunnel under the railway that led to a sports stadium enclosed by an S-bend on the hill.

Roy’s house, outside which he sat, thrashing around uncontrollably in his wooden wheelchair, is gone now. It was the last one on the right before the tunnel—a small bungalow squatting at the foot of a grassy embankment along which trains clattered, some headed for London, fifty miles to the north, others almost arrived at Brighton, a few miles down-rail. Today, Tongdean Lane is lined on both sides with tall office buildings that have turned the corner from the main road, where for several decades they have welcomed drivers to Brighton with their boring facades of brick and glass. Large notice boards announce that these not-quite-skyscrapers are home to insurance companies and consultants of nebulous varieties, whose names reveal nothing of their purposes. The buildings have an abandoned air about them, even though someone must come to trim the grass and shrubs between the low brick walls that serve as landscaping.

Tongdean Lane was quiet back in the 1950s, too, when my family moved to the neighborhood. Then, it was an inhabited quiet that I walked through on my way home from school—the quiet of a street where mostly old people lived and could occasionally be encountered pruning a rose bush or, with their feet in fluffy slippers, walking a small, elderly dog on a leash. My bus, the number 5, didn’t turn up Tongdean Lane but continued along the main road toward Patcham. There was, however, a convenient bus stop right on the corner, so I could jump down, say goodbye to my friend Tisha, who lived on the other side of the highway, and begin the trudge up the hill, swinging my satchel filled with homework and novels in which teenage girls and their ponies were the heroes.

The day we moved over to this part of town from the old house in Portslade—the only time we ever moved—I was eleven and had managed to catch the flu. It might, in fact, have been a reaction to leaving the only home I had ever known; there is loss involved with such a move. But back in that era, particularly among the British middle classes, such things were not acknowledged, and I was pretty sick by the time school let out. Completely forgetting about the move, I caught my usual bus to the old neighborhood and walked wearily up the long hill (why did we always have to live up hills?) only to arrive at the shell of a house that was no longer home. Somehow, perhaps through the kindness of a neighbor, I got word to my parents, who picked me up and took me to the new house. There, I lay in front of a smoky coal fire, wrapped in a quilt, until my bed arrived in the moving van. I was tucked into it and left to recover, which I did by morning.

The next day, I got it right and took the new route home. The minute the bus pulled away, I heard Roy starting to shout. Over and over, the same garbled words, interspersed with long pauses, forced their way out as his head rotated or fell back and his arms windmilled furiously. This first encounter with Roy somehow merged in recollection with the previous day’s fever to become a slightly shameful memory. For months, he came into my mind just before I fell asleep, his voice croaking as he spluttered and called out, his wrists doubled over like hairpins, as if a dreadful cramp was tugging them into impossible shapes.

It was his oddness, I suppose, that I was afraid of in the beginning—or was it really fear? I remember being more embarrassed than anything else as I walked on the left side of the road, pretending to ignore his repeated shouts: “What’s . . . yooooor . . .” followed by a lot of swallowing and head rolling, until he produced the final, triumphant, “. . . name?” His inability to muster his words and take charge of his limbs provoked a kind of discomfort I had never felt before and a desire to pass by as quickly as possible.

In those days, disabilities (a word not yet in circulation) were never discussed, at least not by people with no professional connection to them. My school had nobody who wasn’t able, both physically and mentally, and I had never come across anyone, child or adult, who was what might have been referred to, in hushed tones, as “. . . you know.” I didn’t figure out until much later that Roy suffered from cerebral palsy; adults, including my mother, referred to him as “a spastic.”

After about a week of ignoring him, I realized he was going to be there whether I liked it or not, so I crossed the street, looked him in the eye, and answered his daily question.

“Hello,” I said. “My name’s Judy.”

After that, I always walked up his side of the street.

“Alloo-oo-oo, Joo-oo-dy,” he would manage after several false starts, and as I got closer, I would see a grin stretch his face as a gurgle of pleasure rolled around his throat. It soon became clear to me, without having to think about it, that he was completely compos mentis—that the only impediment to our conversation was his inability to control his lips and tongue and throat, which refused to cooperate and went their own ways, like his legs and arms.

Sometimes I would stop beside him as he struggled to ask if I was on my way home from school, and occasionally I volunteered information: I told him I was going to a movie that my mother had forbidden or what a dreadful lunch had been forced down our throats that day. Other times, particularly after the routine had been established, I resented his expectations and was short with him, muttering, “Hallo, Roy,” and walking right on past the wheelchair as his head fell forward onto his chest in an attitude of despondency, which I pushed out of my mind as I turned past the sports stadium and headed for my tea.

Autumn darkened into winter, and my walk grew more solitary. There were only a couple of streetlights in the lane, and nobody except Roy was ever outside. It was after five o’clock when I got off the bus, sodden leaves muffling my footsteps. Curtains had not yet been drawn across lighted living room windows; inside, a man would be sitting with his feet up, reading a newspaper, or a woman would be bustling around, engaged in some early evening task. Sometimes an orange cat dozed on a windowsill, or the still-rare flicker of a television made me think about the weekly serial “The Cabin in the Clearing,” which I was watching on our new set. These nights, I looked forward to Roy’s greeting, and when he wasn’t there, the street seemed unfamiliar, even spooky. He rarely sat out in the rain, although sometimes his mother forgot to wheel him inside in time, or perhaps she didn’t notice the weather until his old green sweater was steaming slightly in the yellow pool of light from the bridge lamp.

It never occurred to me to ask him questions. How old was he? The normal clues for age didn’t seem to apply, and, indeed, I never even wondered. Now, I think perhaps he was in his twenties. His face was deeply lined, but that might have been from the effort everything took—the scrunching of muscles, frowning and tightening at each attempt to speak or smile or stay still. His eyes, I do remember, were a startling bright blue, and he was very thin. Had he been able to stand up, I think he would have been tall, though he was rarely able even to sit straight and was usually slumped over the bar that held him in his chair, his feet waving about above the metal footrests.

That winter, he started dropping his keys a lot. I don’t know why he was entrusted with a bunch of six or seven keys, but as I plodded up the hill, he often held them in one waving fist, his fingers pressing them hard into his palm. When I was close, the keys would drop or fly away with an unplanned swing of his arm. Laboriously, he uncurled his fingers and pointed with one of them, often not the index finger, in the general direction of the keys. The tone of his request was clear, if not the words themselves. “Okey-dokey,” I would say, an expression I had picked up from the new TV set, and pick up the keys for him.

It was a still, dark night the first time he grabbed my wrist as I handed the keys back to him. His grip was painfully strong, and the tips of his fingers dug into my forearm as he pulled me down onto his lap, the bar that held him into the chair pressed into his stomach between us. I had only a vague feeling of doing something wrong, although I do remember being on the lookout for his mother, who might emerge at any minute to fetch him in for his tea. My navy blue school tunic was rucked up, and my bare legs felt warm on his brown corduroy trousers. It was an odd sensation, but not an unpleasant one. I stayed there for five or perhaps ten minutes while Roy’s body subsided into an unusual calm. Once in a while, an arm would shoot out, and from time to time, his hand clenched around the wheelchair bar, but mostly he just sat there, his tongue protruding a little, his eyes smiling happily as his head swayed from side to side.

It seems odd now that I didn’t obsess about this encounter, which turned into quite a habit over the next few weeks, but I didn’t think about it much at all. It was simply something that happened on the way home—something slightly naughty that I could get away with when I wanted, even though I still had days when I brushed him off abruptly, not wanting to go through the ritual of the keys and the lap that night.

Then one cold and slightly drizzly Friday, when I was later than usual because of a lacrosse practice, Roy tried to tell me something different. “The keys,” he said, pointing to his side and bending his vowels until I grasped the word. “Po-cket,” he managed, pointing again.

“You want your keys out of your pocket?” I asked.

“Yeah!” he exclaimed, nodding violently, his head arching back till his chin was in the air and then whistling down onto his chest.

So I put my hand in his pants pocket to find the keys.

I remember the feel of the pocket’s rough cotton as my fingers moved across his thigh. And I remember the shock when I encountered his steel-hard penis, just, of course, as he had intended me to. I snatched my hand out, blushing and confused, and marched on up the hill without saying goodbye. The next evening, Roy’s mother was standing at the gate, her arms folded across her plump breasts, looking businesslike. Surely he couldn’t have told her? I greeted them both politely and walked on.

His mother hardly ever appeared after that, and I continued to sit on his lap when no one was around. How did I explain to myself the willingness with which I groped in his pocket for those keys, half-repulsed and half-fascinated by the anatomy I bumped into as if by accident? And why did I shy away as if in shock when his unruly hand managed to clamp down on mine just as it touched the crucial spot inside the pocket? It was as if I was willing to put myself in the danger zone but wasn’t going to do anything once I got there. And I didn’t.

Sometimes, it seems now that I should be ashamed, not of the small sexual explorations, but of the ease with which I stood up and left him. Indeed, there were times he appeared so depressed on a day following one of my abrupt departures that I was forced to admit, just for a moment, that I might be treating him unfairly. And yet, I tell myself defensively, he was a grown-up, and he had started it. Of course, if he had not been in a wheelchair, I would have felt terrified—the way I was terrified when other men did inexplicable sexual things: the old man on the bus whose pants all of a sudden revealed what I didn’t want to see, leaving me paralyzed and silent; the raincoated man in a standing crowd at Wimbledon who, in the midst of an exciting first-round match involving Billie Jean King, placed his penis right in my bare hands, which were clasped behind my back. These men left me feeling furious and guilty, even though I had no choice in the encounters and was not in any way to blame. With Roy, I had made a choice; I was at least partially responsible for the continuing flirtation between our bodies—his sinewy, male, and out of control; mine preadolescent, long-legged, and curious. But I never felt the same guilty disgust that I associated with the men I thought of as perverts.

It bothers me now that I failed until much later to consider Roy’s life. I never wondered what he did all day when I wasn’t walking home from school, how he took a bath, whether his mother read to him, or what radio programs he liked. And what happened to both of them later, when the bulldozer razed the street to make way for some financial services group? Back then, there were few resources for someone like Roy. His mother must have been dedicated; yet, some days, she surely resented the demands of her severely handicapped son. Did he end up in an institution when she couldn’t go on or when she died? Did he die young? Or is he somewhere still, waving those arms around, better medicated, better entertained, no longer stuck outside all day to watch the passing traffic?

Ironically, some five decades later, I own a handicapped parking sticker, having been diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that is gradually impairing my mobility. Even if I eventually end up in a wheelchair—which I might—there’s absolutely no way I can compare my own disability with Roy’s, the memory of which has finally come to wrench my heart. I make a point of talking confidently about my situation, of yelling at people who steal the disabled parking spaces I rely on, and of demonstrating that there is no shame in walking with a cane or running out of energy before the party is over. It was the shame, back in the fifties, that made it impossible to ask my mother about Roy—impossible almost to think about him.

What comes back with the greatest clarity is the intense blue of his eyes and the odd sweetness of his smile as he plotted his difficult moves. My biggest regret, these many years later, is that I was too young, too scared, and too paralyzed by unexplained guilt to lift up the wooden bar, put my head on his bony shoulder, and snuggle into his body until our breathing merged, our heartbeats slowed down, and we were both quite still.

About the Author

Judith Barrington

Judith Barrington is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Long Love: New & Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2018). Lifesaving: A Memoir was the winner of the Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir.

View Essays

Leave a Reply