Happy Publication Day to Sara Barnard and her completely and utterly wonderful book, ‘A Quiet Kind of Thunder‘. I’ve made no secret of how much I fell in love with Steffi and Rhys, so I was honoured to be contacted by Macmillan to pull together a post in honour of ‘AQKOT’ and, more specifically, Steffi’s selective mutism.
Macmillan asked bloggers to consider what it might be like to live with selective mutism, to imagine a day in silence. So I began to think about some of my most recent days and how those daily tasks might challenge someone with selective mutism in a vastly different way than they do me. One of those said days my train ticket was a print-at-home sort of gig and not the orange ones that you can ‘do yourself’ when going through the barriers at stations. It meant I had to find a train guard/conductor and be let through rather than do it quick and easy by myself. And this maybe, sort of, definitely spiralled and turned into this little short story about Ivy. Enjoy and find links at the end to buy this fab, incredible book!
Sick of Losing Soulmates
The train station.
Ivy stares down at the A4 sheet of paper with her train ticket printed on it. Her cheeks already feel hot and tears are stinging at her eyes.
He did this on purpose, she thinks. He definitely did this on purpose.
A tear splatters onto the ticket and it’s only then that she realises she’s actually started crying. She quickly bats it away with the back of her hand, giving a sniff and folding the paper once, twice.
When Ivy looks up and readjusts the strap of her backpack from where it’s digging into her shoulder, she catches the eye of a woman in a suit, wheeling her suitcase towards the barrier. The woman gives Ivy a strange look and, to be honest, it’s the least of Ivy’s problems. She’s used to strange looks. People at school give her bug-eyed stares all the time. Even her family seem entirely confused by her very existence. Which reminds Ivy: she is definitely killing her brother when she gets home.
Because as the woman with her wheel-y suitcase walks up to the barrier, she offers her orange, normal train ticket to the machine and it just licks it right up and spits it out the other side once she’s waltzed through.
On instinct, Ivy tightens her grip on her own folded, print-at-home ticket, scrunching it up and quickly regretting it for fear it’ll cause an even bigger problem. A bigger problem than the one her selfish, cruel brother is already managing to inflict. Without even being here right next to her, she might add.
Normal, orange train tickets mean a quick, smooth and painless transaction between machine and human. Her desire for one of those — rapidly becoming sacred — orange tickets is the very same reason Ivy hops on self-scans in Sainsbury’s instead of the standard checkouts. To avoid human interaction. And not just because she’s a moody, anti-social teenager who only communicates in the rolling of eyes and grunts.
Managing any kind of noise would be Ivy on a good day in terms of actual conversation with a stranger.
Because Ivy can just about muster up words for her parents, her brother — if he’s not being a knob, which is most of the time. And her not-quite-best-friend Tim, who she’s more or less friends with due to common ground than an actual flourishing, beautiful friendship. They find comfort in one another’s easy silence.
But when it comes to anyone beyond those four people, Ivy’s ability to speak is virtually redundant.
Ivy suffers from selective mutism, a disorder that stems from her screwed brain’s incessant need to make her feel anxious in just about every goddamn social situation. Even saying ‘thank you’ for her change when she buys a chocolate bar from her local newsagent feels like a mountain that she rarely summits.
And having a printed-at-home train ticket versus the normal, bloody beautiful orange ticket means Ivy has to approach one of the platform guards, get his attention — without simply flapping the piece of paper in his face until he opens the gate — and finally, by some miracle, get onto the platform and onto her train. On time.
Ivy’s hands are getting clammy as she takes one single step towards the barrier, eyeing up the guard. He is young, far younger than she’d usually envision a platform guard to be — not that Ivy is in the habit of thinking about them. Like, at all.
But he must be in his early twenties and he looks bored out of mind, lazily leaning over the part of the barrier where any normal person would stick their ticket, his chin resting in the palm of his hand.
She is definitely beginning to curse not only her brother, but also her dad as she tries to think of ways to make the platform guard look at the ticket and let her through without actually having to make her brain and mouth play ball.
Why did my dad have to decide his marriage wasn’t working? She asks herself. Why did he think moving to the flipping seaside three hours away was a good idea?
Ivy shakes her head, knowing there is little to no point questioning a separation that happened when she was eight years old now.
(Damn, it had been ten years already?)
Once Ivy is in front of the barrier and the guard, it takes an excruciatingly long minute (or what is probably actually only a few seconds) for him to flit his eyes from where they’d been watching the clock to her.
He simply stares at her, not jumping into professional mode like Ivy secretly hoped he would.
Her hands feel like they’re going to start dripping sweat everywhere and a tightening has begun to coil in her chest — so much so that she’s not sure she’d be able to get enough breath to make words happen even if her brain and heavy tongue did allow it.
After a further awkward beat, the guard straightens up with a lazy smile, lifting the uniform-required hat off his head and dragging his fingers through his mop of hair.
He hasn’t broken eye contact and Ivy is squirming under his gaze. But not in the cute, heart flutter inducing way. More in the ‘you’re making me feel real uncomfortable’ way.
Ivy has to remind herself that giving eye contact is actually a polite thing to do when engaging in conversation with someone.
Cheeks flaming, she looks down at the folded piece of paper in her hand and quickly sets to work opening it up and angling it towards the man (although, really, he seems more like a boy to Ivy).
When Ivy chances glancing back up at him, his eyebrows have bunched together and he’s just… blinking at her. He regards the piece of paper but then keeps darting back to her face, and the corners of his mouth drag down into a deep frown.
The guilt that she had so quickly judged him for not being immediately to attention sets in, because now he’s being nothing but nice, asking in his own way how she’s doing and she’s just gawking at him, her mouth opening and closing uselessly like a goldfish.
The exchange, or lack thereof, is probably actually over and done with in a couple of minutes. But it feels like an age.
With a sigh, the boy/man/platform guard puts his own skeleton ticket through the barrier and it opens for her. And when Ivy’s on the other side, she feels like she could almost collapse to the ground and kiss it out of pure relief.
But then she hears what he mumbles under his breath as she goes. And she can’t blame him. Really can’t blame him at all.
“Could’ve at least said thanks. Stuck-up cow.”
It gives Ivy’s anxiety legs. Spider legs that crawl from her sternum to the base of her throat, setting up base. Just waiting.
Ivy gets herself a hot chocolate from the instant machine. And even though the quality is probably not nearly as good as getting it made by a real life barista at the Starbucks squished onto the platform, the taste of no human interaction is absolute bliss. Not to mention Ivy can feel the sugar kicking into her bloodstream and giving her that little lift she desperately needs after the ticket fiasco.
As the train slowly pulls up to the platform, Ivy’s grip on her to-go cup tightens, the warm liquid almost burning through the cardboard.
Her free hand taps incessantly against her thigh as she starts to imagine the worst case scenario: someone already sitting in her seat.
She doesn’t mind having to sit on a busy train. Crowds are one of the few things Ivy’s anxiety allows. But if someone is sat in her seat, she has to either say something or find somewhere else to park herself. She usually goes for the latter option.
For a three hour journey, though, she’d rather not have to sit on the floor outside of the toilets. Again.
Ivy shuffles forward with everyone else as those getting off the train file out and those getting on clamber aboard.
Ivy is vaguely aware, as she makes her way slowly down the aisle between the seats, of someone humming something familiar behind her. But then she notices two heads poking out, one of which is in seat 34.
Ivy stops dead just before she’s reaches them, looking down at her ticket and scanning to double check her seat. Yep, there it is. Coach B, Seat 34.
Straight ahead down the aisle is packed with other passengers trying to get to their seats, others putting away their luggage in the overhead racks. When Ivy glances over her shoulder she sees the inpatient expressions of other passengers waiting to do much the same thing, waiting for her to get a move on.
And then there’s a girl. A girl with bright purple over-the-ear headphones on her head that match her lilac coloured hair, swaying her upper body from side to side.
Ivy realises she must have been the one humming and it clicks that it was a Spice Girls song. ‘Wannabe’.
With a strangled sort of sigh — thanks to that spider of anxiety tiptoeing further up her throat — Ivy takes another step towards where the two people, a boy and a girl, are sat. One seat of which is hers.
It dawns on Ivy that they’re probably a couple whose reserved seats weren’t together and that, if she were to say anything, which is a big ‘if’ within itself, she would be breaking up something very lovely and romantic and thus become the certified worst.
She looks forlornly down at her seat number on the ticket and then resides to go sit on the floor outside the toilet like the piece of shit that she is.
But as she makes to move on, someone clears their throat almost directly in her ear.
“Uh, excuse me but you’re sat in our seats.”
The couple turn at the same time Ivy does to look at the purple haired girl. The girl winks at Ivy and Ivy feels herself go bright red.
They, the couple, apologise but they don’t exactly look like they mean it. Still, they move on and Ivy is able to slip into her seat beside the window. Purple throws herself down in the seat next to Ivy, kicking her backpack down to her feet and resting her headphones on the pull-down table in front of her.
Unfortunate for Ivy, her glance at Purple lasts just the wrong amount of time. Long enough that Purple catches her and grins, expression somewhat expectant. Expectant for Ivy to say something. Probably thank her.
And Ivy wants to say something, speak, so badly; wants to tell Purple that she likes her hair, that she thinks it’s really pretty and that she’d always sort of considered making the ends of her own dirty blonde hair pink. But Ivy isn’t confident in her own skills to do it at home and going to the hairdressers is…not an option. Because they talk so much.
Ivy wants to ask Purple questions, too. Like what other music she listens to in those big headphones of hers and where did she get all the badges adorning the front of her backpack from? And does the rainbow flag badge mean what she thinks it maybe means? Although that last one is probably a little invasive.
But Ivy can’t ask any of those things, because the tightness may have eased in her chest, but her tongue still feels as leaden as ever.
So Ivy turns away, just about noticing out of her peripherals as Purple’s face falls, disappointed.
Ivy feels her eyes burning into the side of her face the entire time Ivy takes her phone out of the pocket of her skinny black jeans, feels as they trail over her customised phone case that reads ‘Love is love is love’, inspired by Lin-Manuel — Ivy’s one and only. Feels as Purple’s gaze drops and turns away, still confused and entirely put out by Ivy’s cold shoulder.
Almost in unison, Ivy puts the buds of her earphones into her ears as Purple wrangles her headphones back onto her head and slouches back in her seat. In that exact moment, Ivy is almost sure she can feel the potential of something lifelong snap. And she knows later that she won’t be cursing her brother for choosing the print-at-home option or her dad for leaving her mum and moving three hours away.
She’ll be cursing herself, because just seeing Purple made her feel like she might like to speak and Ivy’s not sure she tried nearly hard enough to make that happen. And, really, what’s the likelihood that they’ll get on the same train, same seats right next to each other, again?