A heart-warming tale of a grandfather’s devotion to the needs of his autistic grandson via an imaginative usage of Lego.
Matthew manoeuvred his fire engine carefully beneath the railway arch bringing it to a halt at the front doorstep of an imposing red brick mansion. The replacement driver, resplendent in a dark blue boiler suit and bowler hat, was lifted gently over the wall and took his place at the controls.
Five minutes later he was winding his way through the Alps. Matthew was on the look out for a place to stop and have a swim. He had discovered his swimming shorts wrapped in festive paper under the Christmas tree two weeks earlier; a gift from his maternal grandfather, George.
He wanted to show his appreciation by taking a dip in Lake Braeis, in Trentino-Alto Adige which he had seen on his atlas was in Northern Italy. Afterwards he planned to ask the chef to prepare a special birthday treat for himself and Robin Hood, his favourite Teddy bear, who he always took with him when he went travelling.
George looked down on his four-year-old grandson as he manoeuvred his Lego pieces around his unique Lego world. He marvelled at the sheer breadth of his imagination. The fire engine combined the traditional with the modern. It featured a built-in satnav as well as an extendable ladder. Matthew had created a special cab in which to put the driver. The Alps were cleverly constructed with winding roads copied from a Condé Nast travel magazine; and the railway arch was classic redbrick Victoriana.
It never ceased to amaze him how accurate these constructions were; and all based on a cursory glance at a picture. All George had to do was order and buy the basic building materials and his industrious grandson would go to work. How did he know what to do? How were such feats of engineering possible when his grandson was still only four years old and mute?
Matthew’s condition had proved all too stressful for his mother and father, but George had persisted in building a relationship with his grandson. He thanked his lucky stars for having stumbled on Lego Masters on Channel 4. It had given him the inspiration to pursue an experiment which he was about to put to the test but which he had shared with no one.
Matthew had been diagnosed as autistic, but his grandfather was not convinced this was an appropriate explanation for his unique talents. He thought that there had to be another answer, but he did not have the medical knowledge to articulate an alternative explanation for Matthew’s anti-social behaviour.
Matthew’s amazing ability with Lego was coupled with an extraordinary gift to absorb structure at a glance. It reminded him of Stephen Wiltshire the architectural artist and autistic savant known for his ability to draw from memory a city landscape after seeing it just once. Stephen’s work had gained worldwide popularity; in 2006, he was even awarded
an MBE for services to art. Since then he had continued to build a viable worldwide art business trading on his genetic talent.
George was convinced that Matthew was capable of something similar and was determined to find the key. Stephen Wiltshire had been championed in his early days by Sir Hugh Casson when the latter was president of the Royal Academy of Arts. He had once referred to him as "possibly the best child artist in Britain." George was determined to give Matthew the same opportunity. He reasoned that Sir Hugh had been a bridge between the closed world of Stephen Wiltshire and the real world inhabited by everybody else.
George had shown Matthew a picture of Hotel Lago Di Braies in the Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park; a whimsical lakeside hotel, a former haunt of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy dating from 1899. Its Lego equivalent had taken Matthew five days of concentrated effort to construct after giving his granddad a long list of his requirements for essential building materials, all of which he had sourced on the “bricks and pieces” segment of the Lego customer website. It now sat beside a Lego lake that was the fire engine’s ultimate destination.
Two days before Matthew’s 5th birthday, two very nervous passengers boarded flight BA 948 from Terminal 5 at Heathrow bound for Munich. It was the first time in his life Matthew had flown but he seemed happy enough snuggled up to his Granddad George as they looked out over the wing of the Airbus A320. The airhostess tried her best during the two- and half-hour flight to engage Matthew in conversation. She was slightly surprised that all her efforts were silently spurned. He even pushed aside a kiddie’s colouring set and buried his head in his grandfather’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Miss” explained George “My grandson is very shy, and he doesn’t speak – he means you no ill will”
Over the years he had taken to explaining Matthew’s odd behaviour to strangers but had determined not to stigmatize him by saying he was autistic. He and his grandson could communicate perfectly well, even if it meant Matthew resorting to urgent pointing and sign language.
“We are having a special birthday treat – just the two of us – his Mum & Dad are looking forward to hearing all about it when we get back. Isn’t that so Matthew?”
Matthew nodded vigorously before burying his head again in his Granddad’s shoulder.
At Munich Airport George picked up a hire car which he planned to drive to Lienz near the Austrian Italy border where they would overnight in a small B&B before setting off on the final leg of their journey. The car was a white Mercedes - Benz A class which Matthew walked round and round looking puzzled. Having put their luggage in the boot he seemed reluctant to get in.
For one horrible moment, George thought his carefully thought out plans were about to unravel big time as a look of horror appeared on Matthew’s face. He flung himself at his Granddad in a panic. George put his arms around him as the penny dropped.
“Now now Matthew - I think I know what has frightened you” he said. “You think I expect you to drive, don’t you?”
Matthew nodded his head
“I’m sorry, I should have explained to you before we left England that they drive on the opposite side of the road here, so the cars are built with a steering wheel on the left not the right as in England”
Matthew immediately relaxed and soon they were heading for the A 22 and open Alpine countryside. With two comfort breaks the journey took nearly four hours but seemed to fly by as the autobahn afforded spectacular views. Matthew gazed in wonderment at the snow-capped mountains, occasional tractors on sloping hillsides with cows grazing on the lower slopes. He didn’t stop pointing and making elaborate hand signals to his Granddad who had tears of joy in his eyes as he they entered the outskirts of Lienz around 8 pm in the evening. Their satnav took them to Bel’vue B&B, a small 8 bedroomed establishment half a mile from the town centre
After breakfast the next morning Matthew couldn’t believe his eyes as a Rosenbauer L32A XS 3.0 fire engine pulled up outside Bel’vue complete with Aerial ladder; the property of Lienz volunteer fire department. George took his grandson by the hand and walked him around the vehicle. Chief fire officer Hans Werner climbed down from the cab and shook hands with George and ruffled the hair of his grandson before kneeling down in front of him.
“Have you ever been in a Fire Engine Matthew?” he said quietly. Matthew shook his head turned and buried himself in Georges’ midriff. Hans Werner winked at George and said quietly. “Would you like to?”
Matthew nodded vigorously without turning around, his face still buried in his granddad’s cashmere waistcoat. “That’s good” he continued “because this version has room for three people – one driver and two crew. If I drive, you and your granddad can come as my crew. Is it a deal?”
Matthew finally turned nervously and saw an outstretched hand. After what seemed an eternity to George, his grandson finally shook Hans Werner’s hand to seal the deal.
It took Hans Werner just 50 minutes to drive his two wide eyed passengers to their hotel destination; a journey that should have taken longer but fellow motorists, on seeing a fire engine in their rear-view mirrors, insisted on always pulling over.
Every now and again Hans Werner asked Matthew to operate the flashing lights and sirens but only when he was confident that there were no police vehicles around. It might take some explaining that he was following a plan devised by his old university friend George and not responding to a genuine emergency.
Eventually, to the enormous surprise of guests already booked in, Hans Werner swung his Rosenbauer L32A XS 3.0 fire engine around the courtyard of the Hotel Lago Di Braies in the Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park stopping theatrically outside its imposing entrance door. He jumped down and held the door open for Matthew and his grandson to disembark. George climbed down carefully first, joined his friend Hans, and both watched as Matthew, clutching Robin Hood the bear to his chest, stood gazing in a reverie at the hotel’s 19th century façade which was so familiar to him.
He had his swimming trunks in a small bag swung over his shoulder as he jumped down to join the rest of the crew, tears streaming down his face. He rushed past them into the lobby of the hotel and straight through to the spa overlooking Lake Braies, with his grandfather George in hot pursuit. Within seconds he had changed and dived into the swimming pool and was swimming towards the deep end.
George panicked and jumped in after his grandson fully clothed.
By now Matthew was swimming back with a broad grin on his face. He threw his arms around George’s neck and whispered in his ear.
“I love you Granddad” he said.
George clung on speechless, a sodden emotional wreck, as he realised that his beloved grandson had just made the transition to the real world.
Decamot inspired by the following items: fire engine, atlas, chef, railway arch, robin, The Alps, swimming shorts, doorstep, bowler hat, Christmas tree