Multiple Choice

The tale of a schoolboy who cannot make a choice, and the steps his parents take to try and cure him. Contains content which may offend.

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Charlie enjoyed Wednesdays. His mother sent him out with five pounds to a burger place because she always had the cleaners in that day.

“I can’t have you in the way,” she said. “You’re always under their feet, in and out of the rooms they’re supposed to be cleaning. Then you go to the lavatory just when they’ve just disinfected everything. I’m paying a lot for it and I don’t want you peeing on the porcelain.”

He protested in a ritualistic way every week as he didn’t want to appear too enthusiastic about going out on his own. He loped off when she shooed him out.

In the café he knew how far his money would stretch. But it wasn’t just the food he looked forward to. It was the girls. At fifteen he had discovered them, in principle, from a distance, and in one or two cases he knew them by name and address. Several he saw on the bus to school in the mornings.

Looking back, later on, he thought that his troubles had begun on one of those Wednesdays. As usual, he was sitting by himself in the cafe, listening to Kiss FM on his iPod. He always an egg muffin; it was a simple dish, as there were too many burgers to choose from. On the menu above the serving counter he could see it with a picture. It was the same with coffee, too may sizes and types; it baffled him. He ordered tea. He used up his fiver and it wasn’t a place where you left a tip.

That afternoon he was half way through; the egg was pierced; it wasn’t hard this time. The yolk spread satisfyingly. He was contemplating spearing another mouthful when a paper dart floated across the table and landed on the plate.

He put down his knife and fork, and picked it up. It was crudely folded. But across one wing, unmistakably, was drawn the outline of a heart, and on the other a large question mark. He was perplexed, but intrigued. Who had despatched it across the room?

He stood up boldly, to look round the other tables. He could see several people he knew from school and down his road. They were mostly girls. The boys were talking and took no notice of him. But two tables of girls were looking at him with grins on their faces. He recognised all of them. One or two of them he liked; three he had once, experimentally, kissed. And as he looked at them he knew that it was a signal to him, a proposal to pick one. He ought to be able to choose. But he couldn’t. Faced with some equal and enjoyable candidates he couldn’t decide between them. It was not a matter of kindness, an unwillingness to favour one against another, nor a desire not to hurt. It was not a matter of being unwilling to create the criteria against which he might prefer one rather than the others. He simply did not have the mental apparatus to choose; he couldn’t order his thoughts. So he sat down with an awkward wave.

From the paper dart moment onwards, it seemed to him that his chronic condition worsened and then became entrenched. He was constitutionally unable to make a choice.

His mother had always appeared to be irritated by him. Much of his domestic existence was ordered by her. She had rules and regulations, most of which he thought seemed designed to improve her own life rather than his. His room was a tip, but no different to his friends’. His homework was finished on the bus in the mornings. She told him what to put on, what to put in the dirty washing bin, what to hang up, what to tidy away. She prepared his meals and expected him to finish them. She refused him a TV in his room or music when he was supposed to be writing his homework essays. She stood over him when he cut his toe-nails, sent him to the hairdresser regularly, and bought his clothes.

His father watched TV most evenings or went to the golf club. He asked him about school occasionally and would invariably reply, “Good, good.” And then follow it up with an anecdote about his own schooling which seemed to involve a lot of Latin. Charlie proved to be hopeless at games other than athletics which didn’t interest his father. And all the time his chronic inability to choose was growing like a tumour. It seemed to his parents, at first, when they had got round to noticing it, that Charlie was simply indecisive; he was an adolescent, there were hormonal changes. They thought he was shy with girls; he had a difficult skin. But all the time they failed to see beyond these superficial teenage conditions and understand his underlying deficiency.

Somewhat tardily the head of his school summoned his parents to see him.

The head tried hard not to show his own anxieties; he was under pressure from his governing body to improve results, the Ofsted inspection had not gone well, and there were parents who wanted the school to become an academy. He was swimming against a strong current. He had been a strong advocate of comprehensive schools when younger, but now he was older, though he liked teaching, he didn’t much like comprehensive parents. He didn’t know these two; luckily they weren’t the usual complainers. He looked at the file quickly. At least they were married. There were nearly two thousand parents and he couldn’t be expected to remember them all. He had to focus on Charlie.

He started off, looking again at the papers in front of him; “We’re worried about Charlie’s exam problem. He can’t deal with multiple choice. And he finds it difficult doing the essay papers. Isn’t that right Charlie?”

Charlie sat up. “Yes, sir.”

“He can’t choose what question to answer. He knows the stuff. In fact he’s got a superb grasp of the all the facts, he’s excellent at quizzes, but if he has to decide how to approach a paper and which essays to tackle, he doesn’t seem able to. And in sport it’s become obvious: in football if he gets the ball he can’t decide which player to pass to, if he bats at cricket he can’t decide whether to run and if he does whether to take one or two or three.”

Charlie’s father said, “He can race.”

“Oh yes,” said the head. “He just has to get from the start to the finish. There’s a clear track. He doesn’t have to think.”

His mother shook her head. “It’s true, I can’t defend him. I can’t send him shopping without the exact instructions. If he sees a supermarket shelf and he has to decide which product to buy, he can’t, if I haven’t spelled it out. If we go out to eat he can’t choose from the menu. I don’t know what to do.”

“Well, Charlie, what do you think about all this?”

He shifted on his chair. He recognised what they were saying about him.

“If I want to do something I can do it,” he said finally.

His mother said quickly, “But not if you can’t decide which bus to take or which train. The number of times I’ve had to take you to the station to put you on the train.” She turned to the head. “The displays on the platform seem to confuse him. If I’m not there he takes the first one that comes. Same with buses, same with routes.”

His father, who had listened to all this, thinking he had an idiot for a son, said suddenly, “He’ll never know which petrol nozzle to use at the filling station.”

The head wanted to bring this to an end.

“We’ll try some counselling. Would you like that Charlie?”

“What’s that?” he replied.

“There’s someone who’ll talk to you about your work and what you like doing. She’ll help you. We’ve got to get you through the exams.” Without prejudicing the stats he thought. This one wasn’t special needs, how could he be. He got up and smiled at the parents, and leaning forward his hands on the desk, said, “Let’s see how he does.”

On the way home in the car his parents argued.

His mother said, “If only it was a condition. Perhaps it is a condition. You ought to look it up.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” his father said. “He’s just a bit dim, don’t you think.”

“Don’t say that in front of him. If it had a name then there would be a cure.”

“I see. Cures follow names do they?”

“If it’s got a name then someone’s thinking about it. Recognition is half the battle.”

“The cure might be worse than the problem. Isn’t he just a late developer? A dreamer? He can run, and he can take things to pieces. I’ve never known anyone take a machine apart like Charlie. But of course he can’t put it together again. Why’s that son,” his father said talking over his shoulder to him in the car.

“I lay the screws out and the parts but then I can’t decide between them.”

His mother then turned round to shout at him; “You don’t seem to care. What about the exams? Aren’t you anxious?”

“No. If I take the wrong bus I miss a bit of school. They don’t care.”

“But I care. What are we going to do with you?”

And so it went on. The counsellor was nice and when, after a few sessions, she met his parents she said, “He’s surprisingly calm about things. He’s clever, he reads the books he is given, though he can’t choose them off the shelf for himself. But he can’t seem to process the information which goes into deciding things one way or the other. He’s got the information, but there’s a block. Have you seen a doctor?”

Charlie’s father said, “He’s not ill.”

“But he might have some tests.”

“What do you think it is?” his mother said.

His father interrupted. “Don’t tell my wife, for God’s sake. If you give it a label we’ll never hear the end of it. A name will be an excuse.”

Charlie was eventually asked if he’d like to have some tests.

He agreed at once. They might be during the school day, they might keep people quiet.

When the letter came from the hospital with an opinion Charlie wasn’t allowed to read it before his mother. When she had looked it over, she evidently wasn’t impressed with it. The letter fluttered out of her hands. “I don’t understand it at all. I can’t make head nor tail of it. You’re a lovely boy,” and she wept. “Why aren’t you normal?”

He picked it up and read what the consultant said.

There was a range of possibilities. He might have dependent personality disorder, but he seemed to have a perfectly normal affective state, no anxiety and no physical abnormalities. His difficulty suggested a cognitive deficit and possibly aboulia; but other than the inability to decide there were no other symptoms associated with the classifications. He might be depressed but his inability to choose was a curious by-product and he seemed to have a normal temperament. It was difficult to discern any other depressive symptoms. Autism and Asperger’s, even mild Asperger’s were issues to be considered but Charlie showed none of the obsessions or relationship problems which characterised those syndromes. It was not appropriate to prescribe anti-depressive drugs at the moment, since his syndrome, if that is what it was, had shown no sign of developing further. It would be suggested that the school discuss with the examining bodies how he could be tested to take account of the difficulties.

Charlie was secretly encouraged by that. He said nothing to his mother.

His now pregnant counsellor had a copy of the letter when he went to see her again.

“You see what it says about you.”

“I’m mostly, like, normal.”

“But you still have that difficulty. We could send you to a special school.”

“That wouldn’t be right.”

“What would it be?”

“Wrong.”

The counsellor looked at him and smiled, breathing quite heavily. She put the letter down.

She said, “And what would be right?”

“To leave me alone.”

“Right and wrong. You understand the difference then.”

“If it affects me, course I do.”

“And if something you do affects other people, do you know then?”

“Dunno, really.”

“Let’s try. You knife someone at a party. Right or wrong?”

“Depends what he was up to.”

She leaned forward, “You can tell that can you? What sort of things?”

“Snogged my girl, something like that. That’s wrong, innit?”

“Let’s get it straight then Charlie. He kisses your woman, that’s wrong. You knife him, that’s right. Suppose you killed him.”

Charlie was uncomfortable. He wished he’d not got into this. He never carried a blade, and the parties he went to were clean.

He said, “Wrong; look, miss, I don’t do things like that. Murder’s not right.”

She persevered. “And if you stole the knife before you went to the party. What about that. Right or wrong?”

He shook his head. He didn’t want to say anything else.

She said, “Come on; pinching the knife.”

“It all depends. It might be lent like, borrowed, you know. Not so bad.”

She sat back and thought for a moment. Charlie hoped he could get away soon. But she was back at him again.

“If I was a visitor from space…” Charlie laughed. “And I had no idea about what the words right and wrong meant and you were the first person I saw and I asked you to explain, what would you say?”

Charlie knew that he could act stupid, but he might be sent away; he also knew he could give an answer because he had read about things like that. He played safe.

“If I do something it may be something nice for me and not nice for someone else. What I did could be good or bad so it may be right or wrong depending on the other person. Is that enough miss.” Please, please, he thought. No more.

“Well done, Charlie. I’ll speak to your mother.”

When the counsellor spoke to his mother, she said, “Your son has a perfectly clear grasp of what is right or wrong. In my judgement that choice involves the same mental tasks as deciding which meal to choose from a menu. Are you churchgoers?”

“We’re not religious if that’s what you mean. We’re Church of England. Suppose he does know what’s good or bad, he still can’t get to Clapham Junction. Why not?”

“Because he doesn’t want to. He’s a very clever boy. You should be proud of him.”

“Wait till I tell my husband. He’ll wonder what the world is coming to. You social workers, can’t see the wood for the trees he’d say. Charlie’s got a problem and you haven’t told me what it is.”

As the counsellor was about to go off on maternity leave she was going to offer an answer, if only to save her successor from more of this.

“It’s a Larkin case, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, so we do have a name for it, do we?”

“Certainly, now we do.”

“Go on then. Larkin. What is it and what can we do about it? What’s the cure?”

“It’s down to the Mum and Dad…”

Charlie’s mother shrieked, “What do you mean by that? We’re good parents. He’s never complained.”

“Not as such. He’s just reacted. You see, Larkin, the poet, said, it’s your Mum and Dad, they fuck you up. In this case, that’s about it.”

A retired part-time resident of Broadstairs for twenty-five years. Roger writes fiction, especially short stories. He likes France and food.

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