Patience, by Toby Litt, is told from the point of view of Elliott, a man recounting significant events from his childhood. At the age of six he was placed in an institution run by Catholic nuns in Manchester. His mother needed a break from caring for him. Elliott has two younger and four older siblings. He longs for his mother to return for him but now believes his family may have moved to Canada or America.
Elliott has severely limited movement and spends his days in a wheelchair. He must be fed smooth foods as he could easily choke when swallowing. He is doubly incontinent and suffers the discomfort and lack of dignity this brings. Alongside all of this he cannot speak and is regarded by the nuns as an imbecile. Each day he is parked, often facing a white wall as they believe this helps keep him calm and therefore easier to deal with. Unbeknown to the nuns, Elliott is aware of everything that happens around him – a small world in which he eagerly drinks in every detail.
It took time for him to cultivate a positive outlook but Elliott has come to terms with this way of living. During his years at the institution: he has been punched twenty-seven times by the violent Charlie and had his nose broken twice; he is a little in love with Lise who spends hours on the floor crying while her brother, Kurt, bangs his head against a metal filing cabinet; he has watched several of the children he shares a floor of the building with die, one as he watched, incapable of doing anything; he has stopped believing in the god the nuns venerate as none of his prayers have ever been answered.
And then, after nine Christmases, Elliott’s world shifts. A blind and mute boy, Jim, arrives and brings with him a quiet rebellion. The nuns act swiftly to quash any hint of rule breaking. Elliott sees a chance to make a friend who could prove useful. He has a dream, a daring ambition.
All of this is told through the minutae of day to day happenings on Elliott’s floor of the institution. The author has opted not to use commas so sentences must be read carefully. This slowing down requires patience – an attribute Elliott has in abundance.
Jim brings a timpanic excitement to Elliott’s ordered days. Slowly, they learn to communicate. Having been little more than an overlooked piece of furniture, Elliott begins to be noticed. His daring plan may even become a possibility.
The sheltered nature of Elliott’s upbringing has left him unaware of many aspects of life in the wider world. As this story is being told looking back, what he didn’t know then, can be explained. These asides add humour to what may otherwise be an unrelentingly poignant tale.
“I thought when I was little that the hanging skeleton was from a patient who had died and that in order to become a real doctor you had to have in your office the skeleton of someone you had killed to remind you to try not to kill anyone else”
Elliott has the same emotions as the more able bodied. He wants to: be listened to, perform heroic acts, be regarded as useful in the deeds he undertakes. He recognises that so much is impossible due to the body he has been given. He has the same sadness as many of the other children.
“every orphan is a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle the rest of which is somewhere else”
The small detail of Elliott’s day to day existence did at times cause my attention to slip. Nevertheless, this is as good an evocation of living with profound disability as I have read. The way the children are treated – kept mostly safe but within rigid parameters – is unsettling to read. It is a cry for greater humanity towards those who are different. A powerful and affecting tale.
Patience is published by Galley Beggar Press.