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Lu Adler


She always loved bath time. That was the first sign. Couldn’t wait to get out of her clothes and into the water - I had to slow her down, stop her literally ripping her pyjamas off. Funny little thing. She always liked the water to be lukewarm, the colder the better. And never any bath foam. “Mummy no foam! Stop making the water nasty!” A sprinkling of my bath salts - that was alright, she seemed to like that.

Every child swims a different river. That’s not a saying. Maybe it should be. Kayla never got on with school, and we learned to be OK with that. We had to. What are you going to do? Your child comes home crying every day? At parents’ evenings I always wondered who felt most awkward: Kayla, her teachers, or me? She wasn’t naughty. She wasn’t unteachable. She’s not stupid. She just didn’t care. It wasn’t her river.

When she was upset, she’d read her book. She wasn’t allowed to take it to school, so we had to have it ready for her as soon as she arrived home. I’d hand it to her when she came in, checking her for sadness, wet eyes, red eyes, shuddering shoulders. How bad today? She’d grab the book, run to the bathroom, lock herself in and read it in the bath. The Happiest Dolphin. It was everything to her. The first copy got wet and the pages stuck together. I bought another. That got soaked. I bought the hardback. The cover peeled apart. So we laminated the next copy, and that worked pretty well. I used to keep three more copies in the loft. Just in case.

In the early years we had no idea what to do. There was one awful night. Nick and I argued. We were talking about moving schools - again. We’d already done it once, and it had made no difference. Nick said we needed to stick it out - give it at least another year. A year! I remember thinking, another day feels too long. It was wearing us down: all three of us. Nick said, “She doesn’t know what’s best for her. She’s eight years old for crying out loud.” I started to cry - as usual - and I said “Something needs to change.” Nick froze - a sort of smile, a sort of apology, and a sort of confusion on his face. I followed his gaze. Kayla was standing in the doorway, dripping, and listening to us. She was covered neck to ankle in some sort of floppy papier maché, around her legs, binding her torso, pinning her upper arms. Her little forearms flapping by her sides. She had used every single toilet roll and kitchen roll in the house.

The school fixed us up with a psychotherapist. The council gave us a social worker. The psychotherapist wasn’t very good. She was newly qualified and she seemed more interested in me and Nick than in Kayla. “Would you be willing to come and see me together, as a couple?” No. We wouldn’t. It’s not that we were defensive. No marriage is perfect, we both know that. But what would we do about a babysitter? And besides, putting the focus on us seemed to be missing the point. The social worker was much better. Very kind. Kayla liked her immediately. They used to have lunch together in the kitchen with the door closed, “to make a safe space and put Kayla at her ease”. They seemed to laugh a lot, and ate a lot of sardines on toast. They would even wash up together afterwards, splashing about in the sink, making puddles on the floor. It went on like that for quite a few weeks. Kayla’s school work got better. She became slightly less dependent on The Happiest Dolphin.

“Let’s talk about your daughter.” It was a cosy cold evening a couple of weeks before Christmas. Kayla was asleep. Jane, the social worker, had come round to share her findings, having completed her investigation. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know where we might go from here. We were both ever so nervous. It was hard enough to think what Kayla might do without Jane’s happy weekly visits.

Jane had a thick folder of notes and leaflets. “She’s a lovely girl.” We know. “There’s no sign of significant trauma or early childhood incidents.” That was reassuring. “She seems perfectly able for a girl her age...” We smiled. She continued, “... though she is coming from a very different place to most of her cohort.” Nick said, “What do you mean?”

Very deliberately, Jane placed a brochure on the table. It said “Marine World - where water is a way of life”. There was a picture of an orca on the cover, which seemed to be smiling and looking directly at the camera.

I said, “You want us to take her on holiday?”

Nick put his hand on mine. He got it before I did.

Jane said, “Not a holiday, exactly, no.”

I read the small print on the cover. “Helping your child to realise their aquatic identity.” The penny dropped.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I know that I cried through most of it. All of it.

Jane hugged me after she stood up to leave. I hugged her back and wouldn’t let go. “Don’t go,” I said, “Kayla needs you. She’s so happy when you’re here.”

Jane carefully unwrapped my arms and held me by my shoulders. “She loves you both very much. Now she needs you to see her for who she really is.” Even Nick started crying then.

That was the Christmas when everything changed. At first, Kayla didn’t want to talk about it. To be honest, we weren’t surprised. It was too much - too much for her, let alone for us. We didn’t know what to say, really. It all felt so clumsy. We didn’t have the language, and it didn’t help that I kept bursting into tears any time the conversation started to go anywhere.

But from the day Jane left us, we were in the system. We had visits, we had calls, and we had more books and leaflets than we could read in a lifetime. It took me a while to understand all the different departments. Kayla’s main contact was Julia from the Psychological & Social Support Team, a plump and serious lady whose daughter is a narwhal. Ours was an older guy called Mboto who didn’t have any children of his own, but was very open about his longing to be a starfish, ruing that the option of course had not been open to him when he was a child. The school was incredibly supportive, and took on an Educational Support Leader: a young, tall, ever-so-friendly chap called Tom who was out-of-the-park brilliant with the kids. A massive, instant hit, really. We were all invited to a special assembly that he put on. Lots of singing and dancing - so many kids involved. It was called “Out of your shell, or into your shell - let’s all be comfortable with whoever you really are.” Tom played guitar. And keyboards. And drums. Amazing!

For the finale, Kayla was centre stage, splashing around in her very own paddling pool. Two other kids climbed in with her. I don’t think I’d ever felt so proud.

We only met the Clinical Team after six months of psychological and social support. They were intimidating. Very brusque, very business-like. No nonsense. Short appointments, then on to the next family. They often had two or three student doctors in tow.

It became clear that the NHS route was not for us. It’s wonderful that the service is available - incredible really - but the timing simply didn’t work. The doctors all but said as much. Much better to go private if at all possible. Time was ticking. The body is much more adaptable to aquatic oils pre-puberty, as everyone knows. Kayla was soon to turn eleven, and about to move to big school anyway. So it seemed like the right time to make the move. Nick’s uncle lives in Cornwall. Marine World is in Cornwall. And so is one of the world’s leading Aquatic Transformation Clinics.

We sold everything, upped sticks and moved in record-breaking time. Quit jobs. Moved away from close friends. There was about a month-and-a-half of exhausting back-and-forth on trains and in cars. Day trips with nine or ten hours’ round-trip driving, start before dawn, back long after dark. Or overnighting with Kayla in a Holiday Inn beside a lonely dual carriageway (we found one with a pool, you see). I’m sure we could have been more careful with our money. But it’s amazing how little you care about that when you know you’re doing the right thing.

It’s the right thing.

We’ve swapped paving slabs for sandy tracks. A boring townhouse for a tumbledown cottage. Misery for happiness, and all of it a stone’s throw from the beach.

The sun sets into the sea from our little balcony. Every evening I watch Kayla and her friends through my binoculars, blowing water at each other, leaping, diving, racing, chattering.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to meet other parents who understand what you’re going through. It’s absolutely transformational. Talking openly is the most extraordinary tonic. How could we possibly have known how repressed we were when not a single person around us could relate to our issue? Suddenly the elephant in the room joyfully and unashamedly becomes the centrepiece of every conversation. Elephant in the room! What an expression. The sealion in the room. The shark in the room. The octopus in the room. The polyp in the room. The dolphin in the room.

The dophin. Our dolphin. Our dolphin Kayla. Our gorgeous glossy darling baby dolphin.

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