The Difficult Child by Jonathan Ramsden

Freya Dempsey had always been a difficult child. She knew this because her father had said so. After creeping downstairs for a late-night snack she had overheard her father talking. He was collapsed on the sofa, glass in one hand, telephone in the other. The bright radiation of the muted TV threw light and long shadow along the peaks of his pale face.

‘She’s always been a difficult child, Deb. I always knew she would be… no I’m not saying that, I just… it’s hard sometimes, you know?’

He took a long sip from the glass; amber liquid spiralled.

‘I don’t know, sometimes it feels like we’re talking different languages. Well, one of us at least.’

Freya spent the next day musing on her father’s words, but she couldn’t fathom his meaning. How could a child be difficult?

She knew of many things that were difficult, like granddad’s sudoku or those huge jigsaw puzzles her grandma liked to do; the pieces were very small and the picture always so detailed. Freya liked to count the pieces to see if there really were two thousand as the box claimed.

Freya’s teachers had always told her that no one could be brilliant at everything. Freya was brilliant at Maths; she understood numbers instantly. When numbers were lined up in a row their outcome always made sense, they were logical. They always behaved. Letters were a different beast; for Freya they would move, jumbling on the page in defiance. When letters were put together they changed the rules and made less sense than before.

Freya’s father didn’t struggle with words, in fact his job involved lots of complicated pieces of paper covered in them. She discovered this when she had determined the correct combination to the lock on his briefcase. She had arranged the paperwork in numerical order based on the sum total of any numbers printed on each page. Freya’s new rule of order had made sense to her; her father had not agreed.

It occurred to Freya that maybe she had been given a difficult father.

Dawn arrived at nine thirty precisely the next day.  ‘Good morning, Freya,’ Dawn said as she stepped into the kitchen.

‘How are you today?’

Freya lifted her left hand and made a circle with her thumb and index finger. Dawn smiled pleasantly.

‘Shall we get started?’

Freya had always liked Dawn; she was patient and never raised her voice nor did she speak in that sing-song way that made Freya feel stupid. But best of she had a kind smile.

Dawn’s lessons made reading and writing easier; she held the letters still. But the writing exercises remained Freya’s least favourite. The pencil felt awkward between her fingers and made her hands clumsy; she couldn’t make the delicate movements each letter demanded.

Frustration took hold when she couldn’t translate her mind-image to the paper. Sometimes she wanted to shout. Her father shouted when he was angry, usually at Freya for doing something he didn’t understand. That’s when Freya found the solution: if she needed help understanding words then maybe her father needed help understanding her.

‘I want to show you something, Freya,’ Dawn said when their session neared its end. ‘Just a little something I thought you might enjoy.’

Freya was excited; she loved surprises. But her heart fell when Dawn produced a large card featuring a complicated-looking table of letters and numbers. Freya pouted and turned her head away.

Dawn tapped Freya on the shoulder affectionately. ‘Hey, young lady! Don’t give up on me just yet.’

At first glance the long card almost resembled a calendar. One column was filled with letters of the alphabet from A to Z while the other contained numbers one through twenty-six.

‘It’s called a substitution cipher.’ Dawn continued when Freya stared at her blankly. ‘You can use it to write secret messages, like a code. Without this key whatever you write will be impossible for others to read but with it they’ll understand your message perfectly. It’s like being able to speak another language.’

Suddenly Freya was excited again.

Mark Dempsey arrived home at 18:35. He closed the front door wearily and picked up the undisturbed mail, leafing through the envelopes disinterestedly. When he plucked out a laminated card he assumed one of Dawn’s teaching aids had been misplaced and set it down on the kitchen counter.

The house was too quiet. Freya had never been a noisy child – not in the conventional way – but still Mark wondered what organisational horror she had wrought in his absence. He boiled some water and settled down at the breakfast bar to enjoy the quiet harmony while it lasted.

Then he saw the message.

The numbers 6,9,14,4,13,5 had been written on a single sheet of paper in a recognisably uneven style. Mark stared at the numbers stupidly for a while, sipping his coffee.

Perhaps the caffeine impelled his brain, formed connections that had previously been ignorant of one another. Whatever the reason he was soon reaching for the laminated card and a notepad, scribbling experimentally until finally he stumbled upon meaning.

The message said: find me. Mark did just that. He searched every room for his daughter, even calling her name which, unsurprisingly, yielded no results.

At the foot of the stairs he found another numerical code; it translated to a single word: warmer. On the landing another: more warmer.

Eventually Mark found Freya in her room, perched patiently on the edge of her bed. She immediately lifted another piece of paper revealing her final message: 3, 1, 14, 9, 8, 1, 22, 5, 16, 9, 26, 26, 1, 6, 15, 18, 20, 5, 1.

Mark immediately got to work, decoding the phrase as quickly as he could. When he was done he stared at the pad with incredulity before an irresistible smile spread across his face. He scooped Freya into his arms and laughed, holding her close.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes you can.’


2 thoughts on “The Difficult Child by Jonathan Ramsden

  1. This is such a beautiful love story of father and child. You describe her pov so keenly and get right into her precious little mind (Autism? Deaf/mute?) You make her and her love for numbers so real. I cried as I read the last paragraphs of how she is finally able to communicate with her dad! Also what struck true was her observation as to maybe He was a difficult parent? Gorgeous!


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