I just booked our Christmas return ferry journey. My mum and dad live abroad you see, and so every summer and every other Christmas, we make our way to the Charente region in France.
I’ll be honest, it is usually a bit of an ordeal. It takes two hours in the car to get to the port, then we have the overnight ferry to deal with, then a 6 am start and a six-hour car journey on the other side. With a dog and two small children, one of whom has autism, this is no mean feat.
It requires spectacular organisation and preparation. We start warning our boy several weeks in advance. We print out pictures of the ferry to put on his visual timetable, we plan which music we will listen to on the way. We warn him, again and again and again about the bits he will find tricky – the waiting, the car alarms going off, the sitting in the car even though it is not moving.
My husband and I are on edge for the whole journey but, for us, it is the lesser of two travelling evils. Our son likes the car and he likes his music. He is usually happy, even on longer journeys and that means the ferry will always trump an airport. It will always trump a noisy plane where we cannot blare out Disney songs for several hours straight.
In addition, he is just getting to an age where he remembers the previous journey. This year, it is only four months since our last trip. He remembers that he gets to stay up late, past his bedtime. He remembers that the cabins and the bunks always look just the same. He remembers that daddy sleeps above him and mummy sleeps above his sister.
He repeats the details to himself, over and over, as he does so many things. He seeks comfort in the known, rejoices in repetition and certainty. This time, however, he remembers something else.
He remembers the alarm music.
One hour before the boat docks, which is usually around 5.45 on our route, soothing music echoes around the cabins, to let passengers know that they will soon need to be up and out. There is no way to stop it. (That we have found!) It cannot be switched off and it sounds several times, serving to prompt even the most stubborn of sleepers.
At least, it is meant to be soothing. It is a kind of twinkly guitar music and I imagine most people will think that there are worse ways to be woken up, even if it does have to be so constant – and so early.
But not so my son.
He is terrified of it. And, now that he is nearly five, he remembers it. It plays on his mind. Ever since the summer trip, ever since I mentioned that it was nanny’s turn to have us in France for Christmas, it has been bothering him.
“If we go to France for Christmas Mummy, will the alarm be on the big boat?”
Yes, sweet boy. I am sorry. It will.
I can see the fear in his eyes. I can see his bottom lip start to tremble. I know, given the choice, he would give up Christmas with Nanny and Grandad, he would give up Santa and presents and trees – just to be sure that he could make that alarm stop.
There is no way for him to know when it will end, you see – no way to predict when it will come again, how long it will go on for. He will not wear his ear defenders in bed, and in any case it is no so much the music itself that scares him.
It is hard for neurotypical people to imagine just how this feels. To be out of control, to have his senses assaulted and be powerless against it – it will make him anxious for the whole build-up to Christmas. It will make him anxious while we are away, knowing he must face it on the return. On Christmas night, snuggled into bed, it will be that alarm that is on his mind, keeping him awake, not the promise of Santa.
And so, even though I do not know if it is possible, even though there may be no way to fix it and we may just have to endure it together, I am writing to ask if there is anything you can do. I am writing on behalf of my son and these are his words, said to me a few days ago after he had a good dream about the big boat to France:
“Mummy! Mummy! I have something to tell you! I had a very lovely dream!”
“You did, sweetheart, about what?”
“Well, I was on a big boat. I was on the big boat to France and it was just like the real big boat. It had a pointy front and a flat back. And we slept inside and it was dark, like in real life. But, in the morning, there was no fiddly alarm. There was no scary music that would not stop! It was just the big boat with nothing scary and I liked it very much. I want to go to France on that boat at Christmas. Can we go on that better boat without the fiddly alarm please mummy?”
“Oh sweetheart, I don’t know. That boat was just in your dream. I do not know if there is any way to turn off the alarm on our boat.”
“Ahhh ahhhh please Mummy! I want to go on that boat in my dream, not the other one! Please!”
He is crying now and I am desperate to ease his pain.
“I could ask the ferry people if there is any way. I could send them a message and ask if there is any way to stop the alarm, gorgeous boy. But I cannot promise. They may not be able to. I can only ask.”
“Ohhh please Mummy. Please ask. It would be so much better if we could go on the boat in my dream. I would not be scared then!”
It is these tiny details, you see, that shape our lives. These things that others notice fleetingly, they prompt delight or despair. And so, I am asking, if there is any way….
Is there any way you can help my boy travel on the boat of his dreams this Christmas?
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