When Fraser Met Billy
Chapter 1 Billy and Bear
It was a bright, early summer evening in 2011 and as we drove east along the banks of the River Dee the Highland landscape looked at its picture-postcard best. In the distance, the area’s highest peak, Lochnagar, was bathed in a beautiful, golden glow while beneath us the setting sun was dancing off the dark waters of the river in a dazzling display of colours.
Every now and again we would pass an angler, knee-deep in the water, patiently casting their line in search of the sea trout and salmon that were now in season. It didn’t occur to me at the time but looking back, I can see that, in a way, I was on a fishing expedition myself. What was that old saying? You’ve got to lose a fly to catch a trout.
My husband Chris was at the wheel of our car while our two children were in the back. Our daughter Pippa was just over six months old and fast asleep in her baby seat. It was our three-year-old son Fraser who was, as usual, preoccupying us. He was sitting quietly, saying very little but staring intently at the two, small photographs that he’d brought with him. We weren’t quite sure what to expect from him this evening. But then, where Fraser was concerned, we never were.
He’d been diagnosed with autism just under two years earlier, in August 2009, at the very early age of 18 months. Like many boys with autism, he struggled to communicate and was prone to withdrawing into his own world. He was also capable of extreme emotional meltdowns, often over the most seemingly trivial things. In addition to this he suffered from hypotonia, a rare muscle tone condition that made his joints loose and floppy. This meant he found it very difficult to perform simple functions such as gripping things with his hands. He also found it a challenge to stand let alone walk. In fact, it had only been in the past year or so that he’d become more mobile, largely thanks to supporting splints he now wore on his lower leg and ankles.
For the past year and a half, Fraser had been receiving treatment from a small team of experts, including a speech therapist and a behavioural
therapist. We’d been told in no uncertain terms that he would never attend a normal school but, despite this, we had managed to find him a small, private nursery that was prepared to take him twice a week, which had been a huge relief for me, in particular. The less good news, however, was that his moods and behaviour were still highly unpredictable and volatile. This meant that our lives were never straightforward.
Fraser is an adorable, loving little boy with a personality that seems to melt the hearts of everyone who meets him. But I’d be lying if I said that our life together had been a bed of roses, because it hadn’t. We had been through some tough and extremely testing times. We never quite knew what to expect nor quite what to do, especially if we changed his routine as we’d done today. All we could do was follow our instincts. Which was why Chris and I were driving along the Dee valley, towards the small town of Aboyne, to meet the local organiser for the charity, Cats Protection.
I’ve been an animal lover since childhood. As a girl I’d play with rabbits, dogs, cats, horses – I didn’t care. That evening I’d looked enviously into the grounds of one of the grand Royal Deeside Estates where I knew you could ride horses, something I’d adored doing when I was younger and missed terribly now that I was a full-time mother.
Our family’s only pet at the moment was a cat, a rather portly and ageing grey called Toby who we’d had for more than a decade, since before Fraser and Pippa were born. It was dear old Toby who had given me the idea for this evening’s journey into the unknown.
Toby was literally part of the furniture. He lay around the house, inanimate for most of the day, focused on the two main interests in his life: eating and sleeping.
For most of his young life, Fraser had taken very little interest in his surroundings or Toby. He was obsessed with anything that had wheels or spun around and could spend hours watching a spinning washing machine, playing with an old DVD player or whirling the wheels of his up-ended buggy or a toy car, but beyond that very little seemed to engage him. Recently, however, I’d noticed that he was fascinated by Toby. He would lie alongside Toby while he snoozed, placing his head on the carpet so that he could stroke and try to communicate with him.
Toby hadn’t reciprocated the interest. For a while he tolerated the intrusion into his space but he’d slowly become more and more wary of Fraser, especially when he was upset. On a couple of occasions, Fraser had begun screaming over some minor change to the household routine sending Toby running upstairs for cover. Since then he’d become visibly scared of him and given him a wide berth. Sometimes
now he would scamper away at the sight of Fraser approaching.
This didn’t really surprise me. I knew that Toby wasn’t a pet for a young child to play with, but Fraser’s behaviour had set me thinking.
As the mother of an autistic child I knew I had to seize any opportunities and openings that came my way. They were few and far between, especially given where we lived, in an isolated house belonging to the Queen’s Scottish home, the Balmoral Estate, where Chris worked. There were no neighbouring families and, for a long time, we hadn’t been able to go to any toddler groups or anything like that because Fraser didn’t cope with those kinds of environments very well. His lack of social skills always bothered me, so seeing Fraser with Toby had made me wonder whether a pet might be a positive influence on him. Interaction was interaction, even if it was with a cat rather than a human.
‘I think he might like a little friend. I think it might bring him out of himself a bit more,’ I said to Chris one evening over dinner. ‘Why don’t we try to find him a young cat that he can have a relationship with?’
We had been through so much already with Fraser that Chris, who is a very logical and grounded person, saw the flaws immediately.
‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘Won’t a cat just get frightened by Fraser, like Toby?’
‘What have we got to lose?’ I replied. ‘If we get it from a charity or rescue centre we can explain the situation and, if it doesn’t work, they would probably take the cat back.’
‘I guess so,’ said Chris, although I could tell he was unconvinced.
The following day I sent an email to Cats Protection, what used to be known as the Cats Protection League, via their main website. I explained that Fraser had autism and a muscle condition that made him immobile and we were looking for a ‘special’ animal to be his friend. That was exactly the way I worded it, a ‘special’ friend. I had no great expectation of such a creature even existing.
At first we didn’t get a reply. A part of me wondered whether they’d dismissed me as some kind of lunatic asking for a ‘special friend’ for her ‘special’ boy. But it turned out that the message had gone to the wrong branch. One morning I got a call suggesting that I contact the Deeside branch of Cats Protection which had, coincidentally, only been opened six months earlier.
So I sent them an email and was soon contacted by the organiser, a lady called Liz who lived twenty minutes or so away from us, near the town of Aboyne.
I could tell immediately that she understood what I was looking for.
‘I’ve got a couple of cats that would be suitable.
But I have a feeling I know which one you will go for,’ she said. ‘I’ll send you a photograph and some details.’
Almost immediately I’d received an email with a photo of two identical looking cats. They were both grey, slightly Oriental looking with white markings on their faces and bellies. They looked fairly young and were quite thin, almost scrawny, which made sense when I read the notes that Liz had attached.
She explained that they’d been found in a council house in a nearby village. The occupants had done a moonlight flit. The council had arrived to board the house up but one of the neighbours had told the workmen there were cats living inside. Thank goodness the neighbour spoke up because, sure enough, when the council workers had broken in, they’d found four emaciated cats, living off scraps inside the house. They would have died if the house had been boarded up.
Cats Protection was called in and they had taken all four cats. One of them, a large, black tomcat, had been rehomed pretty quickly but another cat and this pair of siblings, named Bear and Billy, were proving harder to place.
It wasn’t at all obvious why Liz was so convinced one of these cats would be right for us simply from the photographs, but I was prepared to place my faith in her and take the chance. I asked her if we
could set up a visit where Fraser could meet Billy and Bear and she suggested a date in a week’s time when we could travel to Aboyne.
I’d learned through hard experience that Fraser didn’t like sudden and unexpected changes to his daily routine so I knew I’d have to pave the way for the visit and, especially, for a new arrival in the house.
Over breakfast one morning, I got things rolling.
‘Fraser, would you like to have a cat of your own that you could play with?’ I said.
He looked at me studiously for a moment and then nodded.
‘Yes please, Mummy,’ he said.
There had been times when getting a single word from Fraser was a challenge, so three was an achievement. Encouraged by this I pressed on.
Because he didn’t have the comprehension skills he needed we had got into the habit of printing a lot of pictures to help Fraser understand things. So I immediately ran off a couple of matchbox-sized prints of Bear and Billy so that he could see his potential new friends and begin to choose one of them.
Again, his reaction had been really encouraging. He had taken the pictures to bed with him each night, placing them next to his bedside cabinet. He spent hours studying them. Goodness knows what thoughts had been going through his mind as he lay there, poring over the prints of these identical cats.
Actually, I say identical, but the interesting thing was that he could immediately tell the difference between the pair. To my eyes, they were so similar that I had to write their names on the back of the pieces of paper to distinguish them. But Fraser knew which was which and repeatedly explained that ‘this is Billy and this is Bear’. Autism has so many quirks and complications to it – Fraser could barely walk and couldn’t communicate properly but he could tell the difference between these two doppelgänger cats.
With this first objective out of the way, I then started to prepare him for our visit to Aboyne.
This again was a big deal because we’d never really been to a stranger’s house before. Fraser got so apprehensive in unfamiliar surroundings that it often triggered panics. And even if he was happy in a new environment, he would always find something to fixate on and make life difficult. So we’d basically avoided visiting strangers with him since he was a baby. The only people we felt safe going to see were his grandparents, Chris’s mum and her partner, who lived on the northeast coast of Scotland, and my mum and dad, who lived in Essex.
After a week of preparation, I was fairly confident that Fraser understood what was about to happen. We were going to see these two cats and if we liked them, one of them would come to live with us. As a final precaution to head off any meltdowns we’d told
him that we were going to go on a Friday after Chris had finished work, which was often early, sometime around lunchtime. We wanted him to be prepared for the change in the normal, late afternoon routine.
As it turned out, we set off a little later than planned and the sun was beginning to dip behind the mountains as we drove across the River Dee at the nearby town of Ballater and headed east towards Aboyne.
Sitting in the car, my mind was racing. There was nothing too unusual in that. There were times when I wondered whether I had turned into the world’s most neurotic mother. But the truth of the matter was that as the parent of an autistic child I constantly had something to be anxious about. This evening the list of worries could have been as long as the River Dee. What if he didn’t like or was frightened by Liz? What if he didn’t like the look of her house? What if he was upset by a noise in the house? What if he didn’t like the cats? I didn’t know if the cats were inside or outside. How would he react to a cat inside a pen? In his autistic mind, cats, like Toby, were free to roam where they wanted, as and when they pleased. How would he feel about a cat being hemmed in? What if he just didn’t want to know and wouldn’t even get out of the car, which was entirely possible, probable in fact? On more than one occasion we had driven somewhere only for Fraser to start waving his arms, shouting ‘no, no, no’. We’d been forced to
simply turn around and head home. Was that going to happen again? There were so many worries fighting with each other for a space in my head. Thank goodness I’d had the glorious Highland landscape to distract me.
The dying embers of the sun had dipped behind the mountains by the time we arrived at Liz’s house. As Chris pulled up Fraser was sitting forward in his seat, arching his neck to survey the scene.
‘Is this where the cats live, Mummy?’ he said.
I looked at Chris without having to say a word. It was one of the longest, most coherent sentences we’d ever heard Fraser speak.
‘Yes, Fraser,’ I reassured him.
As Chris parked up, I leaned over to check on Pippa. She was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Fraser. Travelling with her brother was always a challenge whereas with her it was a piece of cake, as she’d proven again this evening. She was still snoozing happily in her car seat so we decided to leave her there for what Chris and I assumed would be a pretty brief visit. We’d parked near the house so we weren’t wandering too far from view.
No sooner had we got Fraser out of the car than
Liz appeared at the door waving. I’d had a number of email exchanges with her in the preceding week and it was clear that she was well prepared because she immediately made a bee-line for Fraser.
‘Hello, you must be Fraser, would you like to come and see the cats?’ she said.
I held my breath for a second. More often than not, Fraser didn’t interact with people he hadn’t met before. If he felt uncomfortable or at all worried, he would refuse to make eye contact and start doing something to distract himself from the unwanted intrusion into his world. But that didn’t happen today.
‘Yes please,’ he said, looking Liz straight in the eye.
There was no question he was engaged. There was no shuffling around or looking disinterested. He still had the photo of the two cats in his hands. Chris and I looked at each other. We didn’t need to exchange any words. We knew something unusual was happening.
Liz explained to us that the cats were outside in a covered cattery area, which was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I could forget about those anxieties about Fraser spotting a washing machine or a toaster and becoming so fixated on it that he forgot all about the cats. But at the same time, I was now worried about his reaction to seeing two cats in a pen. He was used to seeing Toby having the free run of our house.
It was the sort of small detail that wouldn’t bother 99.99 per cent of children. But Fraser wasn’t part of the 99.99 per cent.
My anxieties proved short-lived. Liz led us towards two large pens, lined with wire mesh. One was empty but in the other were two cats that were familiar from the photographs. Bear and Billy. They looked even more alike in the flesh and I really couldn’t tell them apart.
‘I’m going to go inside there now, Fraser, OK?’ Liz said. He nodded, transfixed by the two cats.
For a moment or two, Chris and I stood alongside Fraser, looking into the pen.
There was a raised platform where the two cats were lying down. One was half asleep and was facing in the other direction but the other one was sitting bolt upright, looking intrigued at the new arrivals.
‘This is Bear,’ Liz explained, pointing at the disinterested one. ‘And this is Billy.’
At that precise moment, the second cat immediately sprang on to Liz’s shoulder. He then jumped off and went straight to where Fraser was standing at the wire mesh. Fraser didn’t flinch, quite the opposite. He stood there smiling, fascinated by what he was seeing.
‘Would you like to come in and say hello to Billy, Fraser?’ Liz said.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Mummy will you come with me?’
Again, Chris and I exchanged a fleeting look that spoke volumes. For other parents this might have seemed like nothing but to us, the parents of a boy who had spent the previous three years being frightened of everything, it was very exciting. What happened next, however, was beyond exciting. To me, it was mind-blowing.
Inside the pen, Fraser immediately sat down on the floor. The anxious mother in me immediately thought to herself there’s cat hair everywhere, what if his asthma flares up? But there was no time for me to over-analyse things. Before I knew it Billy had strolled straight over to Fraser and plonked himself on top of him, landing on his chest.
Liz had clearly done a good job in feeding him since he’d arrived because now Billy was quite a big cat. The move came as a bit of a shock to Fraser who was nudged backwards by the weight. For a moment he just sat there, not quite sure what to make of what had just happened to him. In normal circumstances, I would have expected a bellowing scream. But I knew already these weren’t ordinary circumstances. There was no noise, no bad reaction. Nothing.
Instinctively, Billy seemed to sense that Fraser wasn’t quite comfortable so he slid off his chest and adjusted his position so that his body weight wasn’t pressing on him anymore, just his front paws. He then extended his neck as far it could go so that he
could nuzzle his head close to Fraser’s. The pair then sat there, cuddling each other quietly, as if there was no one else in the world but them.
I was stunned. In many ways, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
‘It looks like Billy has already chosen you,’ Liz said, cutting through the silence.
Liz, Chris and I exchanged smiles. Again, no one needed to speak.
Fraser and Billy sat there for a couple of minutes, getting to know each other before Liz broke the ice.
‘Would you like Billy to come home with you Fraser?’ she said.
‘Yes please,’ he replied.
‘All right, well I will talk to your mum and dad and we will get it sorted out,’ she said.
She let them sit there for another minute or two before Chris said he needed to pop to the car to check on Pippa.
‘I think we’ll need to head home soon, unfortunately,’ I said to Liz. ‘So what happens next?’
‘I will have him checked and treated at the vets,’ she said. ‘Then he’ll be ready to move in.’
‘We are moving house soon which might have a bearing on when that happens,’ I said.
‘Let’s talk on Monday, shall we?’ she said.
‘Fine,’ I replied, hoping everything would work out for the best.
I was worried that Fraser might be upset by the fact Billy wasn’t coming with us immediately but when we explained the situation he took it in his stride, just like everything else this evening.
‘Chris, you do think Liz believed us when we said Fraser was autistic?’ I said as we began the return journey.
He just laughed.
‘Well to look at him tonight you wouldn’t have known there was a problem at all,’ I said. It was true.
As usual, we had been fully prepared to turn around without even stepping out of the car. But we hadn’t seen any of Fraser’s more extreme behaviour. He had coped with everything, from visiting a stranger’s house to having a cat plonk itself on top of him. Within the context of our life with Fraser, it felt like a minor miracle. Our hunch had paid off. Perhaps we’d landed our trout.
On the way to Liz, Fraser had sat in his chair in the back of the car, as quiet as a mouse, lost in his own thoughts. Heading home he was transformed and talked animatedly all the way.
‘Billy is going to be Fraser’s friend,’ he said at one point, holding up the photo.
‘That’s right Fraser,’ I replied, catching his eye in the rear view mirror.
‘Billy is going to be Fraser’s very best friend,’ he said.
Out of the mouths of babes. None of us could have had any idea how profound those words would turn out to be.