© Stephanie Gwladferth
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*__* means italics
Chapter 1: Hell is other People (Secondary School, 2007-12)
It was small at first. The whisperings of others, the knowledge – soon shared and spread around the school – that she was different from ‘normal’ people. Weird. Strange. A freak. And the effects increased exponentially. Her few friends – and there’d never been that many and they’d never been close – found excuses to sit elsewhere, to spend time with other people. So she became the weird kid who sat by herself, the freak with no friends. And this made everybody avoid her as though she had something contagious.
Perhaps she did. Social ostracism is contagious, that was one of the few things she did understand about the unwritten social rules of the school, the rules that everybody else seemed to understand so well, but that she couldn’t grasp. So she understood when her few friends abandoned her. They were saving themselves and most of them had enough self-awareness to be ashamed of it, be unable to meet her eye, aware that they’d abandoned her to the wolves to save their own skins. Although one erstwhile friend *joined* the wolves and led the way with the taunts and put-downs and other bullying that became a regular part of her school life. She even grew to understand *that* – any new member or convert has to prove their loyalty by being twice as vicious as the rest of them – but understanding was too late, as always, and bought no relief.
She never understood *why*. She was different from the others, she saw that even though she had no word for it yet (and nor did they.) But she couldn’t see why that made them hate her and torment her so. She could cope with the solitude and loneliness of having no friends, though she’d prefer things to be different. But whatever pain there was in being lonely was a thousand times easier than the pain of being in the company of those who hated and despised her, who spent most of their time and ingenuity in coming up with new ways to humiliate her and make her feel worthless. Or just repeating the old favourites. Some classics never lose their sting.
So her days became more and more nightmarish and there seemed no end in sight. Under the incessant pressure, her thoughts turned to dark places. Ironically, the very thing that caused her problem saved her from the brunt of this. What good was self-harming, anorexia, suicide? – none of them would end her problems.
*Except maybe the last one…* That idea never totally went away and, try as she might, she couldn't stop herself from coming back to it from time to time. And each time more thought would be given to it. *What method would be best to use? Where could I buy pills from? What pills would be most efficient? How many would I need?* These questions had answers and each time she broadened her knowledge she could feel herself getting closer to the point when her knowledge would be complete. *And what will happen then?*
It was Hockey that saved her. At first, she showed no great skill at it, was the last to be picked, and was often assigned to defence or goal as a result. But in goal she found her worth. Other players hated it as you were all alone at the back, but she preferred that to the company of enemies. And she found that, whereas she had little skill in running or shooting, she could block shots and that’s all a goalie needs to do. She also found that if you saved seven shots and let one in, the one you let in would be all that would be remembered. Noting the unfairness, but realising that it was something she couldn't change, she worked on trying to block *all* the shots. She learned to tell from a player’s stance and attitude where and when she would strike and so to block them. She studied the other players for their particular attacking styles and learnt ways to counter them. She became obsessed with it but, unlike her other obsessions, this one paid dividends.
Slowly but surely, her block rate went up and she started to be noticed, started to be picked earlier. Eventually a position that had fallen to her by default became one she’d *earned* and other team players would strive to have her as their goalie, realising that it could make the difference between winning and losing. She was chosen for the school team and that year the school won the county Under 14 inter-school championship for the first time in over a decade. It wasn’t solely due to her efforts – hockey is a team sport, there were other good players on the team and they’d got an excellent new coach in Miss Atkinson – but she was *one* of the team and a skilled member of the team and it was recognised. And that was carried through to the next year, where the school took part in the Regionals for the first time.
And, slowly, the social hell she’d been consigned to began to ease. Her other team mates would, perhaps reluctantly, defend her against the worst of her tormentors – and those members who’d been her tormentors dialled it back under the twin pressures of Miss Atkinson’s talks insisting on team camaraderie and, perhaps, a genuine wish not to upset their prize goalie. And she’d learned. She could never be like everyone else, but she’d started to see patterns, flows, unwritten rules – things everything else understood instinctively, she’d learnt intellectually. She could *fake* it. Not very well, but enough so that, combined with her new status as star goalie, she was, perhaps grudgingly, readmitted to the society she’d been shut out from – and the wolves turned their attention to other, weaker, targets.
But never her. Having escaped from the sheep fold, she vowed she’d never become a wolf, even if invited (which she was, once). And she didn't *forget*. The wolves had turned their attention away from her, but they were *still* wolves, still *despicable*. She faked getting by with them as much as she faked her other social interactions. It took her a while, and some astonishment, to realise that they *weren't* faking it, they genuinely wanted to accept her into their pack. And, as everyone grew older, she saw things that indicated that at least some of them regretted their earlier actions, wanted her to forgive and forget.
*Never.* Memories of self-hating thoughts and feelings, of abject misery and hopelessness with no end in sight, of not being able to sleep on Sunday nights because of the fear that grew in the pit of her stomach at the thought of school the next morning – these could not be expunged just like that. *Never forget. Never forgive.*
Chapter 2: Arrival
Diane disembarked from the plane at Schiphol with a mixture of nervousness and excitement. She could still hardly believe that she was going to live alone in a foreign country, whose language she barely spoke a word of, for at least a year. She’d held back from making the decision for weeks before her mother’s recommendation turned the tide. Her mother knew how hard she found it to make life changing decisions and had worked out how to understand what she really wanted and recommend the right decision to her. She hoped. *What if she’s wrong? This could be the worst year of my life*. Unbidden, a memory of the *actual* worst year of her life came to her, of school and taunts, bullying and misery, despair and hopelessness. *It won’t be like that, we’re not children any more.* Though adults had their own ways of being cruel, none were as bad as those inflicted by her fellow school mates nearly a decade ago. And her autism shielded her from the worst of it – subtle put-downs had little effect on her.
Autism was a word she’d learnt after leaving school that unlocked a mystery about who she was. Sort of. Actually, all it did was give it a name, useful in shorthand conversation but of limited use otherwise. Most people had heard the word but few understood it, bringing instead their own misunderstanding of it to her, fuelled by TV and popular culture. She wasn't Sheldon Cooper from *The Big Bang Theory*. Nor was she Saga Noren from *The Bridge*. She recognised some aspects of herself in the character but snorted in disbelief when she saw her act out in so many ways. *She’s, what, in her mid-to-late thirties? Hasn't she learnt how to fake it? How to hide?* The idea that any (high-functional) autistic person could get to her mid-to-late thirties and a successful career in the police department without having learnt how to do either was ridiculous!
Her autism had followed her through College and University but, thankfully, the people who’d made her school life so miserable hadn’t. Perhaps they’d grown up. Freed from repression, she started to open up a bit, started to make friends. Not many and not very close – she still hadn’t quite got that part worked out – but friends nevertheless.
Hockey helped. Her school ended up winning the U16 National championships in her last year and she was still the goalie, still blocking more shots than any other goalie they came against. Goalkeeping and defence are often overlooked by those who measure skill in the number of goals scored, but those who know the game appreciated how much of a difference she made. People started calling her the new Maddie Hinch and they were only half-joking when they said it.
She’d been noticed. She was recommended and selected to go and train at an England Hockey Academy centre and then at a Performance Centre. She learnt new ways of keeping goal, new skills, new attitudes to take and worked hard on making them second nature. She joined a local side and took part in national tournaments, first at under 16 level, then at under 18. She was selected for the National U18 Hockey team and played in the Futures Cup. And it informed her choice of University – she went to Birmingham so she could play in their team in the top tier of English Hockey.
From the National U18 she was selected for the National England Team, albeit not in the first tier. And her obsession drove her onwards – she wanted to make that first tier and the only way to do so was to become better at keeping goal. She met Dutch players in Birmingham and heard about how popular Hockey was over there, in a country that had won the Hockey World Cup a massive *seven* times. She realised that her skills would improve if her opposition was stronger. Hence playing in the Dutch leagues would make her a better goalkeeper. So when she was approached by a talent scout for HC Oranje Bloemen she resolved to go, terrifying though she found the prospect.
She’d never flown anywhere before, so there was that to overcome also. Living away from home was something she’d managed at University so she figured that she could cope. But she’d be in a foreign country and one that spoke a different language. She’d spent the last couple of months cramming with a *Say Something in Dutch* course, but she knew she was painfully inadequate in the language. Stepping onto foreign soil for the first time in her life she had to fight off a panic attack at the thought of how far she was outside her comfort zone. *Calm down*, she thought. *There’s hockey. You know that, that’s familiar to you. Even if you can’t speak with anyone.*
Then she spotted the coach. Tall, middle aged, athletic build with straight blond hair and a look of authority, of confidence. She recognised her from the website. She fought against the nervousness she always got when she met anyone new, walked over and said:
“Hallo, leuk je te ontmoeten. Mijn naam is Diane Fletcher.” The Dutch phrases, long rehearsed, slipped off her tongue, but she was sure she’d mangled the pronunciation. Still, the coach understood.
“Hallo, Diane, ik heet Ute Wuildemast, de coach van HC Oranje Bloemen.” She understood that – I’m Ute Wuildemast, the coach for Oranje Bloemen Hockey Club – but while she was working that out Ute had gone on to her second and third sentences and Diane had lost the thread of the conversation. She began to panic – communication was hard enough at the best of times, let alone in a foreign language – and Ute must have noticed as she said “Perhaps we should speak in English?”
It was on the tip of Diane’s tongue to reply with “Nee, dank u wel, ik moet oefenen om te spreken Nederlands” a phrase she’d memorised, and try to continue the conversation in Dutch. Everything she’d read said that struggling through to communicate in the second language was the best way to learn and she’d resolved to do that as much as possible. Still… *I’ve only just got here. I can try the Dutch tomorrow.*
“Thanks, that’d be great. I’m trying to learn Dutch, but I’ve a long way to go.” *That’s not an exaggeration*, she thought, and once again quailed at the thought of living in a country for a year when she couldn't even speak the language.
“You’ll be surprised how quickly you pick it up living here”, Ute said, perhaps sensing some of her distress. “Welcome to the Netherlands, by the way. I already welcomed you in Dutch, but I think you missed it.”
“I did. And thanks.”
“Do you have all your bags? My car’s this way”
They walked over to the car park, Ute making small talk in English and Diane desperately trying to respond to it. *Perhaps we should have kept to Dutch*, she thought, *it would explain my silences to her*. Small talk was difficult for her, no matter what the language.
The club had found an apartment for her, reasonable rent and not far from the club grounds. Ute took her there, showed her everything and then suggested they walk to the hockey ground so as to familiarise her with the route. “It’s only ten minutes walk – less if you cycle.” she said as they set off.
“I’ve read about that. Everyone in Amsterdam cycles everywhere.”
“One advantage of living in a flat country. It’s probably the best way to get around the city. We have good public transport also, but bicycles are more versatile and probably faster. If you’re worried about safety, there’s lots of segregated cycle lanes and drivers are very respectful towards cyclists.”
“As opposed to the UK?”
“Well, I’ve never cycled there, but I’ve heard some horror stories. No cyclist here worries too much about safety, cycling is seen as one of the safest modes of transport. I hear that’s not the case in the UK?”
“God, no. Hardly anyone cycles, the car drivers treat those who do as though they were intruders, an attitude often supported by the national press, who are very hostile to cycling and cyclists. There’s hardly any cycle paths and those that we do have are too narrow and only separated from the road by a painted white line. I still cycle, but I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands sometimes…” She stopped, aware she was going close to ranting. “Sorry, it’s a pet peeve of mine.”
“Something I’m a little obsessed with. What would that be in Dutch”
“Hmmm… ‘een huisdier ergernis’ would probably be the closest. Though you could also say ‘een stokpaardje’, a hobby-horse. And it sounds like you have a lot to be worried about” She smiled “If you like cycling, you’ll love Amsterdam in the Spring and Summer. Or if you like longer bike rides, Rotterdam is only 75 km away, along flat roads and countryside. Cycle there for fun, take the train back for speed”
“That sounds nice. Have to wait till Spring, though – you have nearly as much rain here as England, I hear?”
“Yes, we’re a wet country too. We have a saying about the Netherlands, that it’s a kleine kikker land”
“Little frog country?”
“Yes. Lots of rain, lots of frogs.”
They chatted in a similar vein for a while. *How English*, Diane thought, *talking about the weather*. Then they turned a corner and the stadium was in front of them
“And we’re here” Ute said as the Hockey club was revealed.
“Wow, we’re really within 10 minutes walk. That’ll be useful if I oversleep.”
“You’d best not. I insist on punctuality. Everyone on the field in full kit at 07:00 sharp.”
“I’ll be there. I was never late at Birmingham.”
“So your coach said.”
They entered the building and the coach showed her where all the important stuff was. Home, changing room, gym, visitors changing room, the field and the equipment room. The field was bigger than the ones Diane was used to, which is to say it had a larger audience area. Hockey was more popular in the Netherlands. There were some people practising on the field and Diane thought she recognised one.
“Isn’t that *de Wolvin*?” she asked, pointing to the large blond woman.
“Yes, that’s our she-wolf” Ute replied, “don’t worry, though, once you get to know her you’ll see she’s really just a big *katje*.”
The word meant ‘kitten’ and Diane recognised it. She also recognised it as being derived from the woman’s forename, just as her other nickname was derived from her surname. Katrien de Wolf, the she-wolf or, apparently, the kitten, was an up and coming star in the world of Dutch hockey. Her sheer size – she was 186 cm or a little over 6 foot 1 in imperial – meant that she had a tendency to intimidate defenders. Those who got past that had a tendency to underestimate her speed and agility, assuming that someone so big would be clumsy and slow to turn. The opposite was the case, her long stride meant she could accelerate and change direction with bewildering speed, to the frustration of many a defender. *And goalkeeper*, thought Diane, *I’ll have to block her in practice*. The thought made her queasy again – who was she to be playing with or against *de Wolvin*? – and as she thought that she saw Katrien, having lured the goalkeeper close to her, make a lunge to the left faster and further than seemed possible, round the goalie and shoot for goal. It went in and all the players cheered. That seemed to be it for the practice as the players came off, talking to one another. *And how would I have guarded against that?* Diane thought. *Not let her get so close. Those long legs can move fast and far. Need to stay further back to counter them.*
“I’ll introduce you” Ute said and made her way towards the group, Diane in tow. Heart beating fast at the thought of talking to *de Wolvin*, Diane struggled with her natural shyness, wanting to avoid this. *Ridiculous, I’m going to be their team mate, I’ll have to talk to them sometime.* And then she was in front of her and Ute was saying something in Dutch while de Wolvin looked at her.
Diane stared back. Or tried to, The height differential meant that she was staring at the other woman’s chest and had to raise her head to look up. She started into the face of an Amazon. 186cm, blonde hair, blue eyes and beautiful, Katrien de Wolf looked every inch an Aryan superwoman. *Probably best not to lead with that*, Diane thought, *they might still be touchy about the war and occupation.*
“Hello *kleintje*,” the other woman said, “they call me *de Wolvin*. I understand you've heard of me?”
Diane recognised *kleintje* as being *klein*, small, plus the diminutive *-tje* making something like “little one”. She bristled – she *was* small for a goalkeeper and a little insecure about it – and recalled what Ute said earlier.
“I have. I’ve also heard you’re really just a big *kutje* at heart.”
There was something of a stir from the other players. *What? Did I get it wrong?* Katrien looked amused.
“Well, there are certainly those who've called me that. I look forward to practising with you tomorrow, *kleintje*.” And with that she walked off with the other players.
Diane looked at Ute, who also seemed amused. “What? What did I say.”
“I think it was more a matter of pronunciation,” she replied. You meant to say *katje*, yes? From *kat* plus the diminutive, making ‘kitten’ in English?”
“Didn't I say that?”
“Well, the way you said it, it sounded more like *kutje*. From the word *kut* plus diminutive. *Kut* in English is ‘cunt’, I believe.”
“Oh my God” Diane said as she buried her face in her hands. “I called Katrien de Wolf a cunt.”
“It’s not that bad”, Ute replied, “the diminutive lessens it. My English isn't so good here, but I think maybe ‘twat’ would be around the right translation. Or ‘pussy’ – but not referring to cats.”
Diane refused to be comforted by this. “I still insulted her.”
“She knows you’re English and you’re not the first Englishwoman to make that mistake. At any rate, like she said, you’re not the first woman to call her that. And the others meant it.” She put her hand on Diane’s shoulder. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. If anything, it’ll endear you to them. Calling Katrien de Wolf a pussy on your first day, even accidentally, will get you some street cred.”
Diane wasn't so sure about that, but allowed the other woman to allay her fears as she showed her to her office. Once in, she offered Diane a seat, taking the other on herself.
“So. Do you know why you’re here”
“Ummm, To play hockey”
“No. Well, yes, but not just. Do you remember the last Olympics when you stole the Gold medal from us?” There was a light-hearted tone to this and a smile on her face, so Diane reckoned she was joking. She sensed a bit of an edge, though… *Many a true feeling expressed in jest.*
“Do you mean the last Olympics where the British team won a gold medal through dint of having stubbornly held the Dutch team to a draw and won the subsequent penalty shoot-out through superior skill?” She replied.
“That’s the one. Don’t be surprised to hear Dutch people talk about how we outplayed you in that game, by the way. But we agree that there was superior skill in the shoot-out. And much of the superior skill was, to a large extent, Maddie Hinch’s, both in the shoot-out and in holding us to a draw in the first place.”
Diane remembered. She’d stayed up past midnight to watch the game along with every other British hockey player. Great Britain, a team that only plays once every four years, on the verge of a gold medal. As a goalie herself she’d watched Maddie Hinch with awe and had been pleased that, for once, the pundits were acknowledging the role of a goalkeeper in a team’s victory. Later, she’d seen an interview on Breakfast TV with the Richardson-Walshes and Maddie Hinch chosen to represent the team and felt proud, as a goalkeeper, that they’d acknowledged Maddie’s role by choosing her (Kate Richardson-Walsh was there as the Captain and her wife, Helen, whilst a good player and someone who’d taken one of the penalty shots, was probably chosen mainly as she was her wife and they could go on about the whole ‘first-same-sex-married-couple-to-win-a-gold-medal’ headline they’d been flogging since the final.)
“I agree. And it was nice to see a goalkeeper getting the recognition she deserved. But what has this to do with me?”
“We got you because Maddie Hinch wasn't available – she plays for SCHC in the *Hoofdklasse*, as you probably know.” The *Hoofdklasse* was the highest tier of Dutch Hockey and SCHC – *Stichtse Cricket en Hockey Club* – had played in that tier for over a decade. They’d also won the EuroHockey Club Champions Cup last year. “Don’t feel bad about that, by the way. You should feel honoured to be our second choice after Maddie Hinch.”
“I do. So are you saying you’re acknowledging the role of a goalie more…”
“More than that. A coach needs to examine tactics and strategies to see if anything changes. Around a decade ago, we Dutch revolutionised the game by realising the importance of corner attacks. The winners and losers in the league that year were the ones who realised what was happening and adapted quickly and those who were slow on the uptake and failed to adapt in time. I think we may be on the verge of another revolution, this time with defence – especially goalkeeping.”
Diane stared at her, trying to process what she was saying. “So, what you’re saying is that you want me to be the lynch-pin in a new strategy that you’re trying out, one that may succeed or crash and burn. So, no pressure then.”
Ute smiled “It may not be that radical and even if nothing comes of it every team benefits from having a good goalie.” She paused and glanced towards the door, checking that it was shut. “You can handle pressure? With your… condition? Your last coach told me of it, with your consent, I believe”
“My autism hasn't stopped me yet. I've played for England, albeit in a U18 team, and I handled that pressure. I wanted you to know to explain what might seem like anti-social attitudes by me. I'm quiet, shy, withdrawn and don’t find it easy to socialise or make friends and those I do usually consider me a bit weird. And that was when I could speak their language! Holland is a new country with a different culture and it’ll probably be even stranger.”
“It will. You’ll learn, for example, that we really don’t like the name ‘Holland’ – it’s like using ‘England’ to describe the UK. The Netherlands is the name of this country. But the team is used to having the odd Englishwoman here and your autism will probably get rolled up into the linguistic problems and culture shock that you describe, from their viewpoint. I haven’t told any of them, by the way. It’s your secret to keep or give out as you choose.”
“Thank you. I usually keep it secret. People judge you on it and I don’t want to be considered as ‘the autistic goalie’”
“No problem. Well, lets walk back to your place and I’ll pick up my car. Remember, on the field in full kit at 07:00. No excuses.”
“Yes coach” Diane replied, looking forward to it.
Chapter 3: The First Days
True to her word, Diane arrived at the club at 06:15, leaving herself plenty of time so as not to be late. So she was pretty much fully changed when Katrien de Wolf came in, alone and the only other player. *Guess she likes to be early too*, Diane thought. *Well, here goes…*
She approached the other woman, who looked at her. “Neem me niet kwalijk”, she started. She’d resolved to speak Dutch all day unless she really had to use English. “Sorry. Ik wilde niet zeggen ‘kutje’ gisteren. Ik wilde zeggen ‘katje’” *I’m sorry. I didn’t want to say ‘pussy’ yesterday. I wanted to say ‘kitten’.* That was the best way she could express it with her limited Dutch. She was very slow and careful with her pronunciation of *kutje* and *katje*.
The other woman smiled at her. “Dat is goed, kleintje. Hoe lang ben je al Nederlands aan het leren?”
Diane recognised Hoe Lang, Nederlands and leren as How Long, Dutch and Learn, so she got the sense of the question. “Ik heb leren Nederlands voor ongeveer twee maanden” she replied. *For about two months.* “Ik moet nog steeds verbeteren viel” she added. *I still need to improve a lot.*
“Maak je geen zorgen, kleintje, het zal makkelijker zijn dan je denkt” Diane understood the last part as ‘easy than you think’ and assumed the first part was ‘Don’t worry’ or something. And she realised she was having a conversation in Dutch. Slowly, hesitantly and, no doubt, with much mispronunciation and mistakes, but nevertheless speaking Dutch.
“Dank u voor uw geduld” she added, *Thank you for your patience*, and the other woman smiled at her again.
“Het is altijd een plezier om met een mooie vrouw te praten” she said which Diane couldn’t quite grasp – something about being pleased to talk to a woman.
“Dank je nogmaals” Diane replied, *Thank you again.*
Other people came in then, the rest of the team, and Katrien introduced Diane to them. Diane managed to understand most of what they said to her, but noticed that when they spoke to each other they spoke much faster and she couldn't keep up. *Ik zal verbeteren*, she thought. *I’ll get better*.
Her confidence buoyed her up through her first practice session. It wasn't too different from the sessions she’d had in Birmingham. *Hockey is hockey*, she thought. A lot of the session was taken up with practice manoeuvres and a goalie was often needed for these. There were three in the squad, including Diane, and after watching and practising with the others for a day, Diane reckoned she was the best of them. There was no arrogance in this decision, just keen appraisal of skill. She reckoned the second best goalie had realised it too. *I’ll be replacing her*, Diane thought. *That may cause problems.*
In the afternoon they were practising shuffles – the penalty shot used in penalty shoot-outs, like the one Britain had won the gold medal with in 2016 – and Diane had cause to come up against Katrien de Wolf. She’d observed her practising against the other two goalies and scoring against all of them. She’d been right about her stride. She shortened it deliberately on her approach and lengthened it at the last moment when the goalie was too close. *OK, I can deal with that*, she thought and moved out to intercept. But she didn't approach as close as the other goalies and was alert for Katrien to make a lunge to the left, her favourite side. Which she did, lengthening her stride and moving really quickly in a manoeuvre that would have taken her past Diane and to a scoring position had Diane not been ready for it. Surprised to find the goalie still in front of her, Katrien took the shot anyway – it might have gone through had Diane been sloppy – but Diane blocked it and Katrien chased the rebound, turning quickly to find Diane still in front of her, having got up quickly and moved to block again. Both players were conscious of time – there were only eight seconds to make the shot – and Katrien, realising she was running out of time, took the shot before Diane had closed. Diane managed to stick a foot out just far enough that she caught the ball and deflected it slightly so that it hit the post instead of going in, rebounding out of the field and the shuffle was over. The other goalies cheered – it was always good to see a first class forward deflected by an even better goalie – and the other players looked on with disbelief. The she-wolf had been deprived of her prey. Diane figured that this didn't happen often.
She had no time to rejoice as the next player came up for the shuffle and she was needed back in goal. She’d studied her, too, though less intently as she was not considered as dangerous as *de Wolvin* and managed to block her also. All told, she managed around a 75% block rate on shuffles. Katrien scored with her second shot, but lost her third, just. She learned from her mistakes, varying her approach so as to be unpredictable. *A good player, all told, this de Wolvin.*
After practice, she came over to Diane.
“You played well” she said, in Dutch and slowly, “I don’t lose often.”
“Thank you” Diane replied in the same language. “You played well too. You…” and she struggled to say ‘adapted’ in Dutch, “change your play to win me” she managed, eventually.
“Thank you” Katrien replied. We’re going for a drink after we change. Would you like to come? You could practice speaking your Dutch”
“Veel dank. Ik wil met jou gaan.” Diane replied.
A little later they were all in the club bar. Diane was regretting her decision to come. She always found socialising difficult and it was even harder when she couldn't speak to her colleagues and could only understand around one word in ten. Some had offered to speak in English, but Diane had stubbornly declined, saying she needed to practice her Dutch. *And it should be getting better*, she thought, *even though I don’t consciously understand a lot of this, it should be making its way into my unconscious mind.* That didn't help her at the moment, though.
Katrien was the centre of attention, dominating the social gathering. *I knew she would*, Diane thought. She was working out the pecking order of the group, the order that everyone else seemed to understand instinctively and that nobody liked to talk about for some bizarre NT reason. *Looks like de Wolvin is top dog*, Diane thought, smiling at the conjunction of dogs and wolves, *then Greta and Ella.* They were both forwards too. *Could be a bit of a struggle, changing the club to value defence more*, she thought.
Katrien’s eye fell on her, at the edge of the group. “Come here, *kleintje*.” she called and Diane, embarrassed to be the centre of attention, moved in. “Everybody, this is our *schitterend* new goalie, Diane.” Diane wasn't too sure about how to translate *schitterend* – gorgeous, she thought, but maybe there were nuances in Dutch she didn't understand. “She blocked my shuffle on her first attempt! And she did it again on my third!.” Katrien paused to take another drink, then continued, “We’ll all feel so much better at the front knowing she’s behind us, looking after our arses. To Diane!” she toasted and everyone drank. Diane caught the gist of her toast, realised that it was a toast to her and blushed as she realised she was being praised. Arse was almost the same in Dutch – *aars* – so Diane caught it, even though she’d never seen it in any of her dictionaries. *I guess there’s a lot of words you don’t get in dictionaries*, she thought as she smiled and drank along with them.
She now found herself sitting next to Katrien, uncomfortably close to the centre of attention. Luckily, attention had shifted to Greta, who was telling some story Diane just couldn't follow. She sipped her drink, feeling alone in the midst of a crowd, an all too familiar situation.
A hand touched hers and Diane turned to face Katrien. “It will get better, you know” she said, slowly and clearly.
“Everything! You’re here in a foreign country, no friends, barely able to speak or understand the language – I admire you for your courage in doing that. I don’t know if I could.”
“You've never been abroad?”
“On tour, with the club. Not to live there. And I speak reasonable English, so I get by.” Katrien squeezed her hand affectionately and looked into her eyes, “If there’s anything you need, any way I can help you feel better, you only have to ask.”
“Thank you” Diane replied, keeping the eye contact – it was something she had to remind herself to do, her natural tendency was to break it, a common autistic trait which NT people found disconcerting, she’d heard. *That’s really nice of her*, she thought and squeezed her hand back. *Maybe I've made a new friend already.*
Katrien smiled at her and leaned over to say something, but then she was interrupted by Greta, whose story seemed to involve Katrien in some way. Katrien gave her an apologetic look and turned to reply to Greta, leaving Diane alone again. But not as lonely as she was before.
She left when she finished her drink, though, pleading that she still had to finish unpacking, which was true enough. And when, later that night after the unpacking, she lay in bed trying to process the day’s events and prepare for sleep, her thoughts kept coming back to Katrien de Wolf, her grace and skill on the field and how she’d spoken affectionately to Diane afterwards. Diane had never been good at having friends, male or female, and the idea that someone like Katrien might like her gave her a warm fuzzy feeling inside. And she fell asleep to that.
The Dutch *Hoofdklasse* started in September so the rest of August was taken in pre-season training, to reacquaint the players with hockey again. Of course, hockey training never really stopped – especially for those players on the team who’d played for the Netherlands (or other countries) during the summer – but there was an intensity to the start of the league that the players who’d not played over summer needed to reacquire. New players, like Diane, had to be integrated into the team, old players who’d transferred needed their loss to be adjusted to and, in short, the 31 players needed to be moulded into a team instead of 31 individuals.
It was hard work, but Diane liked it. There was a simplicity to hockey that the ‘real world’ lacked. The rules were simple and could be looked up on the internet, unlike the real world. And it helped – being able to relate to people on the hockey field helped her relate to the same people off the field also. Her language acquisition continued and, as everyone said, she was surprised how quickly she picked it up (her obsessive insistence on only speaking Dutch helped enormously here, though she didn't realise it.) Soon she could have genuine conversations with her team mates, only occasionally having to ask for the meaning of a word.
Katrien still spent a lot of time with Diane, encouraging her to speak, correcting her mistakes, practising with her. She went out for drinks with the team a few more times and often seemed to end up near or next to Katrien, which suited her fine. She liked the big Dutchwoman, was in awe of her skills and was grateful that the famous *de Wolvin* seemed to like her also.
Others noticed. Ella mentioned it once, after practice:
“You and *de Wolvin* are getting close.”
“Yeah, we are. I like her.”
“You do, huh? You know where she gets her name from, don’t you?”
“It comes from de Wolf, yes? Does it represent her playing style?”
“More or less. She’s a huntress, our *Wolvin*.” Ella looked at Diane. “On and off the field.”
Diane thought about this for a bit, wondering if she’d interpreted the Dutch correctly. Then she got it. “Oh. You mean she goes after lots of guys?”
“Nearly. Goes after lots of girls.”
“Oh. So she’s…” Diane paused there, not knowing the Dutch words for ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’. Ella was used to that by now and supplied them for her.
“Een lesbienne, ja.”
*Might have known it’d be almost the same*, Diane thought. Ella seemed to be waiting for some sort of response. *Does she think I’m bigoted?*
“I'm OK with that” she replied. And she was. Hockey was a very diverse sport and there wasn't much room for bigots. The captain of the England and GB team was married to a fellow team mate, something that had been trumpeted all over the media after they won Gold at the Olympics and, whereas they were now retired, there were a number of other ‘out’ lesbians in the England and GB squads. The Netherlands, too, had four lesbians on the national team, two of whom were going out with each other. There was no room for bigotry. Diane had met and played with gay women before and had only admiration for people who could openly take a stand against society’s prejudice. Though it’s better than it was, she thought, recalling her school years again.
Ella seemed satisfied with this. “Just checking that you know what you’re getting into.” she said, which confused Diane somewhat. *Another nuance of Dutch I don’t quite understand.*
Autism is a mental condition characterised by a trifecta of impairments. Whereas every autistic person is different – when you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person, as the saying went – there are certain characteristics that autistic people have in common. Social impairment is one – autistic people, like Diane, are usually socially inept, not understanding the unwritten rules that governed social behaviour (which non-autistic, or neuro-typical (NT) people usually can’t explain, as the rules are so well ingrained that most of them are unaware of their existence.) Connected with this, another symptom is difficulty in communication, especially non-verbal communication – Diane had to force herself to make eye-contact with other people and only understood any non-verbal cues by dint of learning and memorisation. Body language was a mystery to her. Finally, there are repetitive behaviours or obsessions. Diane had to check she wasn't going on too much about her most recent interest to the point of boring other people. It didn't help that nobody would tell her that she was going on too much, they’d just drop loads of non-verbal clues that went completely over her head.
As an example of what all this meant, flirting was largely beyond Diane’s ability, either to do or to recognise. The subtle looks and gestures that indicated another person’s interest often sailed past her. Fortunately, most men were quite blatant about showing an interest so that even she could see it. More subtle behaviour – like the sort....