I find him in front of the painting. Though you can’t tell much about the boy in the picture, he must be about the same age as the boy standing there on the carpet in the living room, the boy who is now, I remind myself, my son.
‘What is it?’ the real boy, my son, asks me.
‘What’s a painting?’
‘A work of art.’
‘What’s a work of art?’
‘Something made by an artist.’
He stares at the painting. I cannot bring myself to say his name, the name that I did not choose, and so instead I call him by the name I would give him if he were mine to name, that is to say, I call him Will in my mind and almost nothing to his face except you, or worse still, I address him indirectly, making statements that fail to acknowledge him as the implied subject.
Will looks from the painting to me, his eyes bugging out.
‘Someone made that?’
‘Yes, the artist made it.’
‘But how did he make it?’
‘The artist is a woman,’ I say.
‘Oh.’ As his eyes flick back to the painting he puts his index finger in his ear, like sliding a key into a lock, then takes it out again. ‘What’s her name?’
Will turns from the boy in the painting to glance around the room in the flat he has been getting to know over the course of the past couple of days, before looking back at the painting once more. ‘How did she make it?’
‘With oil paint and a brush and a canvas and varnish and turpentine, I suppose.’
‘Turpentine’s a chemical. Made from pine trees.’
‘The painting is made from trees?’
‘In a way, yes. Part of it is. And there’s a stretcher behind the canvas, and the stretcher is made of wood.’
‘And the cavas?’
‘The canvas. It’s made of cotton.’
‘Like a shirt?’
‘Yes, like a shirt, but both the shirt and the canvas come from a plant.’
‘Have you ever made a piece of art?’
Will glares at me as if I’m stupid, his features drooping in an arrangement he must have learned from a teacher, perhaps older children, or even the man and woman who called themselves his parents before Edward and I began calling ourselves his parents a few days ago. ‘Not like that.’
‘At school? Have you never painted?’
He makes a show of thinking, cocks his head.
‘Once or twice, I guess.’
‘We’ll get out the materials this weekend. You can try your hand at making art. I bet you’ll like painting.’
‘I like dancing,’ he says, still studying the image of the boy standing in a living room, the painted child’s head three-quarters turned towards the viewer, as if gazing not at his real-world observers but at someone else in the house where he stands, someone just outside the frame of the painting. It is difficult to tell what the boy in the painting feels, what his mood might be, although the hands on his slim hips suggest determination, even willfulness.
Later, after dinner, I find Will standing in the same place, staring at the painting, then at our living room, as though trying to make sense of some implied relation between the image on the wall and the space surrounding the image. At dinner he refused to eat mushrooms and threw one across the kitchen, leaving a gray-brown streak of roasted portobello trickling down the wall. He threw his fork and knife across the tiled floor and pushed himself back in the chair, kicking the legs of the table, his arms crossed over his chest. Textbook tantrum. We have had training, my husband and I, we know how to respond to such provocations. Instead of time-outs, as with a ‘normal’ child, Will earns ‘time-ins’: time spent with us attending to him in a way that feels like a performance of parenting rather than parenting itself. It is still easier than in the excruciating workshops in which we took turns playing a child with an attachment disorder and the parent who would work to strengthen those tenuous bonds.
Edward and I put him to bed in the room we prepared over the past six months with no sense of who might one day sleep inside it, boy or girl, younger or older. Will is older than we first wanted, but the introductory meetings went well, and the file revealed nothing but neglect and deprivation, as if neglect and deprivation were minor considerations. In fact they were, compared to the scores of children whose mothers drank and drugged their way through pregnancy, or children physically and sexually abused, born months prematurely, or who happened to be unlucky inheritors of a chromosomal disorder or some other disease, carrying with them a large degree of uncertainty about their long-term development, or kids who suffered from global developmental delay, insecure attachment disorders, and so forth. Enough to make any sane person despair, and yet we had chosen to take this route rather than any other. Altruism, Edward said, it’s about altruism. Or naked self-sacrifice, I countered. This had not been my original impulse, not what I imagined when I first thought about how, in the absence of biological ability, we might have a child, but in Britain, unlike America, there are scarcely any babies available to adopt from birth. If only I had forced Edward to move to my country rather than staying in his, where there are comparatively so few children available to adopt, and where surrogacy is all but impossible.
On paper, Will is ‘normal’, just neglected. He looks reasonably like us, or at least like Edward, and perhaps like me, too, if you were to glimpse us passing through shadow across the street, in the distance, our heads turned three-quarters to face the horizon.
We made a room for him that is ungendered, appropriate for no particular age of child, pale gray walls that are soothing in this city’s watery light, a bright red rug on the parquet floor, a white-framed single bed bought at the last minute – last Saturday in fact, when we were certain we needed something larger than a crib.
‘Do you like your room?’ I asked Will when he arrived. That was Tuesday.
‘It’s bigger than my last one.’ He sat down on the white bedspread, ran the palms of his hands against the cotton, almost, I thought, like a poor person experiencing luxury for the first time. High thread count, Egyptian. As if that were important for a child, for the waif who is in the process of becoming my son. He was afraid of getting it dirty, he told me, and I said he shouldn’t worry about that. Things get dirty. But I knew we had made a mistake, created a room too adult for a boy like him. It was a space for the ideal boy, for the boy we might have had if we had been able to produce him ourselves or adopt him from birth, lullabying him beneath a miniature reproduction of an Alexander Calder mobile. For Will there would need to be different bedding, sheets with superheroes or cartoon characters, bedspreads crisscrossed by cars or motorcycles, assuming he was that kind of boy.
‘We can change it if you don’t like it.’
‘You mean for a diff-er-ent room?’ He spoke those syllables with halting correctness, as if the word had been hammered into his teeth and tongue. Such crooked teeth. We would be paying for substantial dental work in another few years.
‘No, this will still be your room. But we can paint it another color, or change the rug. And maybe you want to put up some pictures.’
‘Posters, photographs. We can look for things to decorate it. It can be a hunt.’
‘A treasure hunt?’
‘Yes, a treasure hunt.’
Edward closes our bedroom door. We are getting used to sleeping with the door shut after years of thinking about privacy only when guests came to stay. The first night I found myself locking it and Edward shook his head, as if to say, without saying it, that we can’t let him think we don’t trust him. He’s only a child after all. Yes, but a child we don’t know, I wanted to say, tried to say with my eyes and a lift of the shoulders, a hunching forward with my arms, the slight exasperated turn of my hands to face palms to the ceiling, a child with experiences about which we may never know anything for certain, who might get it into his messed-up little head that the two men who now insist on being regarded as his parents are really no better than devils that ought to be slaughtered in their sleep. Edward rolled his eyes, as if to say, again without saying it, too many horror films, too much paranoia, this is not The Omen, or whatever film it is that features the psychopathic boy who kills his mother. This is just a child who needs love. We must trust him.
‘Do you think he’s sleeping well?’ Edward asks. ‘He seems tired.’
‘Some children have trouble sleeping in a new bed. I read it in one of those pamphlets.’
‘Might be cumulative fatigue. We don’t know what it’s been like for him before now.’
‘The foster parents seemed all right.’
‘I thought they were creepy. They called him the LO. What does that even mean?’
‘The Little One.’
Edward groans and rolls his eyes. ‘How dreadful.’
‘They all use that expression. I didn’t think she was so bad. She told me that Will –’ I stop myself. It’s the first time I’ve used my name for the boy out loud. Edward’s eyebrows lace together. No, not lace – spasm, flinch. I’m confusing my husband, upsetting him. ‘I mean . . . Romeo. I don’t know what I was thinking. The foster mother, she told me we should watch him. Like a pair of hawks.’
‘You see, creepy. She was just trying to scare you,’ he says, getting into bed and drawing close to me, breathing into my ear. I feel him harden against my leg.
When I sleep, I dream of Will standing on our bed, flicking a whip against our faces. He draws blood.
This morning Will is up before us, and there he is again, standing in front of the painting I brought back from my last buying trip to Cape Town, discovered in a gallery in the Winelands. Contemporary artist, South African, she paints from found photographs. This piece, like many of her recent works, is slightly blurred, the contours of the living room in which the child stands suggested rather than clearly delineated. Looking at the painting, I feel as if I have fallen into a stranger’s memory, with no sense of the outcome or the parameters of its lost narrative. Was the boy in the original photograph wearing a monkey costume, or did the artist add the tail? Why should this painting hold my new child’s gaze? It is not the only piece of art in the house. There are other paintings and etchings, lithographs and woodcuts, but it’s this canvas, of a boy in a living room, a mid-century modern interior, a palette of reds and browns and grays with a prominent slash of white – a vase on the coffee table in the foreground of the painting – that draws him.
‘Have you washed already?’
He shakes his head, gives me that ‘are you stupid?’ glare, and with his hands indicates his clothes, day clothes, going-to-school clothes, a new uniform we bought for his new school. Only his feet are bare. He rises on his tiptoes and kicks his right leg out to the side. Dance or karate?
‘Have you had breakfast?’
Twitching his head, he turns back to the painting.
‘Come, I’ll eat with you. Edward – I mean Dad –’
‘I’m calling him Papa.’
I note to myself: he has called me nothing, not even my name, since arriving on Tuesday. ‘Okay. Papa will take you to school this morning. I have a meeting.’
‘But I want you to take me to school.’
‘I can’t, Wi—’ Terrible. I catch myself. ‘I have a meeting today, on the other side of town. I wouldn’t make it in time.’ It is meant to be the last meeting of the life I am curtailing as of three days ago, the last time I will consult with one of my company’s clients, the last time for nearly half a year when I will engage the professional portion of my mind. What, I wonder at night, if the professional is all that is left, and there is no personal share remaining, no individual behind the career? I am the one taking adoption leave, not Edward. I am the one who will be the ‘primary carer’, as the social worker put it in her horribly nasal drone, which was an improvement over her ungrammatical emails. This meeting is the last commitment from my old life, at least for the next four months. ‘How will you make time for a little one in your busy lives?’ she asked us during the approval process. ‘As any other parents would,’ I said, ‘we will adapt.’
‘You should make the time,’ Will says. The adult inflection is as disconcerting as his readiness for school. No doubt it’s something he has heard from one of his foster parents, or even his birth parents, father chastising mother or vice versa, the parent who failed to be as available as he or she should have been getting told off by the one who has no choice but to do it all. I know, in fact, I should not frame it with such doubt: neither mother nor father made the time, they both ignored him, did not even feed or clothe him properly, though there was always money for beer, or so Will’s file told us.
‘It’s not nice to speak like that,’ I say, trying to flatten my voice.
Then, in a single fluid movement, he reaches out, picks the white ceramic vase from the coffee table and drops it on the floor. I watch it shatter on the parquet, a genuine Stig Lindberg reptile vase that I took months to source after buying the painting, part of the process of making the room match the art. I scream, a reflex, but Will – Romeo – smiles. ‘You should make the time,’ he says quietly, and puts his hands on his hips, scrutinizing the room, as if searching for something else to destroy. I see the mid-century couches ruined, the sliver of coffee table smashed, the television in its reproduction retro housing kicked in by a six-year-old foot.
‘I can’t. And because of what you’ve just done, you lose all your screen time for a week.’ The punishment is unduly harsh, but it’s too late to reverse course. A day’s worth of no screen time would have been adequate: a week for a boy his age is eternity.
He grunts and stomps his foot, bare sole coming down hard on an edge of broken pottery, and then he is the one screaming without thought, tears erupting from his eyes, snot from the nose, boy become fountain. I lift him up in my arms, he puts his hands around my neck, sobbing, and I carry him to the bathroom. Edward pushes open the door, his face red, as if he has already decided that I must be to blame, or so I imagine.
‘What the hell happened?’
‘Why are you yelling?’ Will wails.
I explain to my husband, I wash the cut in the boy’s foot, I see that it’s too serious simply to be bandaged, the bleeding is slow to stop, the tub is pink and crimson and white. In a different context it would be beautiful.
‘We’ll have to go to the hospital.’
‘I’ll take him,’ Edward offers, as if he thinks I might not be up to the task.
‘No, really, it’s okay.’
‘I can reschedule.’
At the hospital there is a security alert. A car has been abandoned outside the emergency entrance and a dozen police cars are surrounding it, blocking traffic, lights flashing, cones and police tape cordoning off half the street. I watch as an officer breaks the driver’s side window and reaches into the car. I hold my breath, expecting the vehicle to explode, but nothing happens. The fifteen-foot-tall Victorian wrought-iron gate to the car park has been chained shut and we have to find a spot several streets away.
‘I can’t walk,’ Will says, as I help him out of the passenger seat. ‘It hurts too much.’
‘I’ll carry you,’ I say, imagining what the hospital staff and social workers will think, the questions they will inevitably ask. I wonder if I can carry him the whole distance, but the neglect that Will suffered means he is smaller and lighter than a six-year-old should be. He climbs me, clings to my neck, holds on, surveilling the road behind us. I inhale his odor: white bread soaked in sweet milk, a dusting of cinnamon, a faint note of coffee and cardamom, and then his head is nuzzling my hair and a balloon of warmth expands in my chest.
‘I’m too heavy.’
‘No, you are very light.’
‘Like air?’ he says into my ear, almost whispering.
By the time we get home from the hospital it is after noon. Blessedly few questions from the staff, and instead an understanding from the nurses and the attending doctor that these accidents happen, a gash on the foot is not the kind of thing an abusive parent might inflict, although come often enough with strange wounds and they would have to wonder: abusive, sadistic, or ill. My mother once had a patient with Munchausen’s by proxy. Though confident of my innocence, I feel the guilt of speculation.
‘What about school?’ Will asks.
‘No school today.’
‘But I’ll get in trouble.’
‘You won’t. I’ll phone them. You need to heal. Keep your weight off the foot. We’ll have a long weekend instead.’
‘What will we do?’
This is the moment I have been dreading since we started the process more than two years ago. With an infant it would have been easy, no expectation of entertainment at first, just routine care, the instincts of parenting, months and years to get used to each other before demands for entertainment would ever be articulated. What does one do to occupy a child of six all day? Can a boy that age not amuse himself ? No, unwise: a boy like Will might fill the hours by emptying my home of all that I cherish. Art, objects, mementoes of travel accumulated over the course of my life. I am not prepared to sacrifice such things for the sake of a child’s entertainment.
I look at the painting across the living room, the image of the boy gazing at the person absent from the picture, the white vase on the impression of a coffee table, the painting in the background of the painting, the wall lamps, the specter of couches and cushions, the old-fashioned television, a world that is recognizable, a mirror of the room I have created around it, but as if seen through a scrim that both separates and distorts. Art, I think. Art is a thing I know how to do. I am, after all, a professional.
‘We could do some painting.’
‘Painting my bedroom?’
‘Painting a picture.’
‘Like making art?’
‘Yes, making art.’
Where will it be safe? A mushroom stain easily washed off the kitchen wall, and we can begin with watercolors, nothing too permanent, something that will wipe clean from tiles and granite. We used washable paint in the kitchen, the floor repels everything that falls on it, the cabinets are metal and glass. Watercolor, even if splattered, cannot do much harm in a kitchen. From the materials cupboard in my study I get out tubes of paint, brushes and two large spiral-bound pads of watercolor paper. Will limps behind me as I lay a drop cloth on the counter and drape old towels over two of the kitchen stools. The floor can look after itself. I open the pads of paper next to each other on the counter, squirt paint onto the two palettes, and fill empty tuna cans with water from the tap. I tell Will to change into old clothes, and then realize he has no old clothes, he has hardly any clothes to his name, coming to us with a single duffel bag of belongings: seven pairs of underwear, seven pairs of socks, two sets of his old school uniform, a couple pairs of jeans, shorts, shirts and T-shirts, one coat, no hat or scarf, two pairs of shoes, no toys or books or other possessions.
‘A white T-shirt,’ I say, ‘or that black one you have, and a pair of shorts.’
‘I only have school shorts.’
‘What about the ones from your old uniform?’
‘You won’t need them again. Different colors at your new school.’ Is it wrong to feel pleasure at being able to provide with such confidence, to assure the child in my care that what he has struggled to maintain may now be discarded with impunity? There will always be more, cheap, until it all runs out, or the world upends itself.
When he has changed, I help him onto the stool and show him how to dip the brush first in the water, then in the paint, and begin to apply color to the paper, deciding to let him experiment, not to be too prescriptive. Let him make mistakes, allow him to see what happens with too much water, the way the paper will begin to curl and undulate.
‘What should I paint?’ he asks me.
‘Whatever you like.’
‘But I don’t know what to paint.’ He rolls his eyes, pouting a little.
‘Paint yourself. Do a self-portrait.’
‘A picture of myself ?’
Why should this seem so preposterous to him? Because no one has ever suggested to him that he is worth representing?
He pushes his face to a point, brows and lips forced outward as though trying to join up with the tip of his nose. ‘Okay, maybe I could do that,’ he says, and chooses a brush, dips the brush first in the water and then in the orange paint, which he applies to the paper in a circle. He fills in the circle and on either side of it paints two arcs, and then at the base of the circle a long post, out of which protrude four smaller posts: a stick-figure self, naked. I try to occupy myself with my own painting, to let him work without feeling observed. A memory of a Paul Klee exhibition leads my own hand to an irregular grid of colors, a flattened Harlequin, or a clown crushed by a steamroller. Will dips his brush in the water, swirls it about, and then jabs it into a worm of blue paint. Wet on wet. He will either be captivated by the possibility of colors blurring, or distressed by the imprecision of the result. As the blue enters the orange, they combine into a greenish-brown arc where he has intended to paint a shirt. He quickly withdraws the brush and watches as the color spreads.
‘Wet colors run, but it’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that.’
‘Your one isn’t messy,’ he says.
‘No, but I use less water, and there are different kinds of paintings.’ I show him some reproductions of work by Marlene Dumas, wet on wet. ‘You can make any kind of painting you want. Just experiment.’
How his accent grates. It will have to be ironed, flattened, dried out.
‘Try things. See what happens. Don’t worry what it’s going to look like in the end. Just get a feel for the medium, the paints.’ I catch myself being prescriptive even in my desire to liberate.
He tries again, brush against the paper, blue into orange, feathery blurs of color. This is a child who wants precision, who has undoubtedly been required to stay within the lines of coloring books, whose teachers have praised tidiness rather than creativity. His parents – the first people who called themselves his parents, who forfeited the right to call this boy their son – probably shouted at him if he made a mess. I can imagine the foster parents, a couple in their sixties, rough in their speech but tidy in their habits, house-proud with net curtains and silk flowers, shouting at Will if he stepped out of line. His clothes arrived clean, pressed, folded in that duffel bag, the spare shoes wrapped in plastic, all of it, every stitch, manufactured in China, perhaps even by children like Will. When I think of China I think of regimentation, the management of nature, everything controlled and precise, chaos pushed to the edges or hidden behind façades. This, I note, is the Year of the Fire Monkey, a year of change.
Will throws his brush down on the counter and grunts through his nose in frustration. Watercolor was the wrong choice. Crayons, colored pencils, fine-tipped Magic Markers, those would have been better.
Will is in bed after calling George and Henry names so rude even they, usually unflappable, are shocked. Where could he have learned that language, except from adults? Surely no child his age would know such artful obscenities. For half an hour after being put to bed, he continued to scream. I worry what the neighbors will think, and then, as if my psychological evolution is outpacing my expectations, I find that I no longer care about neighbors.
‘I’m sorry, guys,’ I say, ‘I hoped he might behave for company. One of my many recent miscalculations.’
‘He’s very alpha for a six-year-old,’ George says, pouring himself a second vodka.
‘I fear what may be coming in a few years’ time, sweetie,’ says Henry. ‘Are you ready for all the teenage issues?’
‘He’s only six.’
‘Ten is the new fifteen,’ George says, ‘I have godsons, my dear, I know.’
I glance at Edward, giving him the tight smile that says this is exactly what I predicted would happen and he should have trusted me in the first place.
‘It’s going to be fine. He’s had a difficult start,’ Edward says, and I find his confidence as maddening as it is reassuring. I want to say: You have not spent the day with him, you cannot imagine the difficulty of scrubbing blue and orange handprints off the living-room walls as the child who is now your son threatens to throw himself from the balcony to his death because he hates you. ‘We will all adjust, and things will calm down. Love conquers all.’
‘Love does not conquer trauma. Only psychoanalysis can help you there,’ George says.
‘Or pharmaceuticals,’ says Henry, smirking. ‘I know a doctor who will give you anything if you switch on the tears.’
‘If he wasn’t happy painting, what does the boy like to do?’ George asks.
‘He says he likes to dance.’
‘But you like to dance, darling. You used to be so good at it.’
‘You should teach him to tango,’ Henry laughs. ‘That’s a dance which is all about governing rage.’
He wakes me up, pushing a space between Edward and me, and then, after a minute, begins to breathe a stately waltz of sleep. It is too dark for me to see Edward’s face, but I hear his head turn, his mouth open, and I know that if we could look into each other’s eyes, we would both be smiling, brows crinkled in expressions of empathy, or sympathy, for the troubled child at rest. Will’s arm twitches, not pushing my husband and me apart, I try to tell myself, but pushing out a space for himself, opening a compartment within the us that already is, expanding our sense of the we as we’ve known it.
Saturdays are always hopeful. Will comes tiptoeing into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes, a flag of hair flying after being pressed into place by ten hours in bed. I wash the wound on his sole, examine the stitches, and he winces when I wrap it again and pull on the sock. This is your own doing, I want to say, but know that is both true and not. His doing was the work of other hands, those of the absent birth parents who created this beast – no, child – who breaks what is precious to someone else and, when chastised, injures himself in retort: a piece of brutalist performance art. Someone should give those birth parents the Turner Prize. We could open our home as a gallery space, stage nightly performances for a limited run. I might turn myself from a designer back into an artist, take the credit, sign my name to the work of my child.
After I have cleaned up the cotton swabs and tissues from dressing Will’s wound, I give him a bowl of cereal. He picks flakes from the milk and arranges them in a smiley face on the kitchen table, checking out of the corner of his eye to see if I will scold him. Edward does the work for me.
‘Don’t play with your food, my boy,’ he says, smoothing Will’s riot of hair back into place. I wait for our child to react, and Will seems to be waiting to see how he himself will respond. He looks from Edward to me and back to Edward, then picks each flake of cereal from the counter and puts it in his mouth before finishing all the food in his bowl. This is the child corrected, trying to be good, and yet I struggle to smile, to reward him for doing as he has been told. We need to have a conversation about words, the words he used last night. The later we leave it, the harder it will become, but Edward has to attend a symposium, and either I will do it alone, or it will have to wait until this evening, and that, I feel certain, will be too late to have the proper effect, to make Will see that calling our friends names is unacceptable, that there are limits to our capacity to accept his behavior, that he must mold himself into a different version of the boy he has been up to this point in time. I would rather do it with Edward, but it must happen now, so I wait until my husband is out the door and then sit down across the kitchen table from Will. He turns his spoon upside down and a trickle of milk dribbles along the steel edge.
‘You seemed very angry last night,’ I say, holding out my hand to him. He looks at my palm as if he does not know what to do with it, then puts his own hands in his lap, leaving mine there, naked, abandoned.
‘Those were angry words you used with our friends.’
His features pull together again into a point, his head twitches, he makes animal noises, clicks his tongue against his palate and scratches his armpit. Is this acknowledgment or refusal? I need less ambiguous sign language.
‘Do you know what those words mean?’
He shakes his head. Quite clear this time.
‘Where did you hear them?’
‘Can we dance?’ he asks.
‘No, not right now. We’re talking about words.’
‘But I want to dance.’
He gets up and shuffles across the kitchen to the stereo, switches it on, prods the tuner button until he finds a station he likes, turns up the volume, and begins throwing his arms in the air. A chimpanzee, I think, an orangutan. The song is not one I have heard, on a station I would never choose, but Will knows the words and sings along with the girl on the radio, lyrics about moving furniture to dance. When his back is turned, I slip past him, turn off the radio, and stand with my arms folded across my chest. He spins around and growls at me, then hurtles forward, palms out, and pushes me backwards against the counter, throwing me off balance so I hit my head on the cabinet. Half the room goes black and the other half ripples with small silver explosions. I stagger, put my hand to the back of my head, feel moisture and stickiness.
‘Sit down!’ I scream. ‘Sit down right now!’
Will cowers, huddling in the corner near the door to the living room. He pulls out the cutlery drawer and crouches beneath it, arms wrapped around his shaking legs.
The same nurse is on duty as last time.
‘It’s you today, I see,’ he says, ripping open the cover on a sterile swab.
‘My son pushed me. Yesterday he broke my favorite vase and cut himself on it, today he pushes me into a cabinet.’
The nurse gives me a look, as if he thinks I might deserve it, then shakes his head. ‘I see it more than you’d think,’ he says, and leaves me holding a compress as I wait for the doctor. X-rays, no concussion, stitches, a bandage. A minor incident in family life, I suppose, for the vast majority of people with children. To me it seems like a crisis from which we may not recover. I imagine returning Will to the department store where we bought his bed, asking for another model, one that is not quite so defective, but Edward and I agreed, no matter what, we would not give up on this boy. ‘Altruism,’ I said to Edward when we made the decision, ‘weighs significantly more than love.’
‘How do you mean?’ he asked.
‘I feel it on my shoulders already,’ I said, and he took me in his arms, plumping me upright.
When I come out to reception, Edward and Will are sitting hunched over a coloring book, an adult coloring book, one of those intricately designed things composed of botanical and animal motifs, each leaf a maze of competing patterns, every feather a mosaic of byzantine complexity. Will is focused on a frog, working hard to stay in the lines of the serpentine forms that make up its legs.
‘What do you say, Romeo?’ Edward prompts the boy who, if we all play nicely and adjust to one another, will legally be our son in a matter of eight weeks, from which point onward dissolution will become much more difficult, might require, for all I know, me declaring myself an unfit parent.
‘Sorry,’ the boy mumbles.
‘Sorry for what?’
‘Sorry for pushing you,’ says the boy.
‘How about a kiss?’ says Edward.
No, I want to say, I do not want a kiss from that little beast, but I lean over and let him embrace me, his arms circling my neck, hot breath landing with a smack alongside my nose.
At dinner, I allow my husband and this boy who breaks my belongings and attacks me without provocation to do all the talking. How have they bonded so easily? I do not laugh at the boy’s jokes. I refuse him eye contact. I clear the dishes, I ask Edward to see to the boy’s bath and bedtime. I have a headache, I say. I take a painkiller and grip the edge of the sink, looking out on the communal gardens of the development, listening to the buses pass, the sirens running to the hospital, and, down the hall, the sound of laughter, the boy and my husband joking, joshing, getting on so well with each other. This was not what I signed up for. I will phone the social worker on Monday morning and tell her to come get the boy. The bed can still be returned to the department store – the frame at least. I’ll donate the mattress. Health and safety rules. Contamination. Does no one think how a feral child might contaminate its nest? We will start over, remortgage the flat, hire a California surrogate. I do not want to spend the rest of my life fixing someone else’s failure.
‘You can’t continue to punish him,’ Edward says, after we have gone to bed.
‘He needs to know he can’t behave like that.’
‘I think he knows. He’s just a boy.’
‘He’s not a boy. He’s an animal. We can’t keep him. He has to go back,’ I say, as Edward suddenly seizes my hand, staring past me. I turn my head, and Will is there in his pajamas, standing in the light of the doorway, his face scrambled and wet, features drawn to that terrible point. Pinched, I think, I have acquired an English child with pinched features. How much I would rather have one of my own, an American baby with no early trauma other than separation from its biological parents, a child I could hold from the moment of birth. Looking at the tears on the face of the boy I agreed to turn into my son, I wait for the ballooning of love in my chest, but nothing comes, no breath of affection.
The boy turns and runs down the hall, Edward springing from our bed to go after him. I listen to the crying and beneath it the murmur of Edward’s consolations. He is good at consolation, as he is good at almost everything, perhaps save self-interest or introspection, or the development of an inner life. I wonder sometimes if my husband is ever contemplative, or is instead as purely animal as he so often seems – animal in the best sense, of course, natural and responsive and fit, a thing of nature within nature. Consolation is an animal trait. Pet videos have proved it to us. The behavior of elephants, too, in a time of death. What is their mourning if not an act of group consolation?
At the start of this process, we agreed that Edward would be the parent who said no, because he has an instinct for comfort, for making rejection palatable. I am too likely to snap and bark (too human, I think, or too like an animal that has been mistreated and so becomes unnatural), and as a consequence I must be the one who always says yes, even if that yes is qualified by the admonition, ‘but ask Papa what he thinks’. I fear we made a mistake, working against our natural instincts in this way.
‘You get to choose,’ Edward says when he comes back to bed, an hour or so later, perhaps longer, after singing Will to sleep with a lullaby I have never heard before, but which made my toes curl with its sweetness. ‘Either you commit to what we’re doing, or it’s over. All of it.’
What are Edward’s eyes doing? The lids are red and the pupils contracting as he stares at me, his chin trembling. I look away and he snaps his fingers in my face to make me turn back. I have never seen such violence from my husband.
‘Don’t do that. That’s not the kind of thing we do to each other.’
‘Listen to me,’ he says, his voice breaking. ‘We are doing this together or there is no more we.’
‘And if I can’t?’
‘You must try. And now it’s your turn to apologize to Romeo.’
‘I cannot call him by that name.’
‘But that’s his name! He’s too old to change it. After all he’s been through, we cannot now call him Will. He must be Romeo.’
‘It’s not a name I can say. It’s too ridiculous. It makes me feel like the Juliet I am not.’
‘Then what could you call him? Just as a start.’
I think about this, try to judge from his expression whether Edward really means what he says, but there is determination there, no flicker of falseness. He sounds like he is trying to be patient with me, despite whatever he feels. What would I do to save us? Embrace a beast in our home? Isn’t there a folk tale of a monkey turning human? I can think only of stories – real ones – of orphan children raised by baboons and eventually saved by human society. The retraining, the unmonkeying of those human apes, sometimes takes years, as the evolution of humans from our ape ancestors took countless millennia, I remind myself. I must adjust my expectations, perhaps every day for the rest of my life, decades spent in a mode of constant adjustment.
‘I could call him my boy.’
‘Then call him that at least. The name will come.’
‘Or a nickname. I could call him a nickname. Something like Ro.’
Edward’s eyes clear and he smiles despite his desire, I suspect, to be stern with me.
‘You know what that means?’ he asks.
‘Enlighten me, o scholar of the arcane.’
‘Rest. Repose. Peace. Noun or verb. A Germanic import. Perhaps originally Icelandic. Ró. As in the York Mystery Plays, which I was meant to be talking about today if you hadn’t had your little kitchen drama. After God showed them round the garden, Adam said to Eve, “Nowe are we brought Bothe unto rest and ro.” ’
‘Noun and verb? Imperative as well?’
‘Not strictly, but I suppose it could be. Adjust its usage. Language is dynamic.’
‘Name maketh man.’
Edward puts his hands on my shoulders and draws me close. ‘We can but try.’
As I go to sleep, I think of the meaning of the child’s whole name, Romeo, an Italianization of the late Latin Romaeus, which meant one who makes pilgrimage to Rome, if I remember my high school Shakespeare class. Still, I cannot help feeling it is a vulgar name for a child today. Perhaps in Italy it would be different. Context is key. If I were to take him to Rome, to see the origins of his name, perhaps that would also, by some magic, ro him.
The next morning, I find the child again in front of the painting, this time standing on a chair, his face level with the canvas and square with the boy who is composed of fluid oil that has hardened into form: permanent, short of its destruction by fire or blade or the deteriorations of time. Does he see himself in that child with a tail? He has one hand on the wall to the left of the canvas, which is unframed, just as the artist intended, I believe, and as I found it in the gallery in Stellenbosch, in a room of the artist’s other unframed canvases, blurred images of young men and women, families, one of a black nanny holding a screaming white infant titled ‘Monster Love’. My heart drops when I see the child I am meant to love. I want to shout at him to get down, not to touch, but then remember my role. I am the one who says yes, Edward must say no. When the boy’s right hand reaches up as if to touch the painting I know I cannot wait for my husband to get out of bed.
‘It’s better not to touch it,’ I say. Romeo’s head swivels so he can look at me, but his left hand remains stuck against the wall and the right one is frozen mid-reach. ‘We have oil on our hands, and dirt, and those things are bad for art.’
‘Why is oil bad for art?’
‘It leaves a residue. A trace. An invisible mark. And over time, that trace would collect dust and dirt and gradually it would become a black mark, and over an even longer time that black mark would begin to decay and destroy the painting.’
He squints. I have lost him.
‘Think of the painting as if it were the cleanest thing in the world. Would you want to get the cleanest thing in the world dirty?’
‘But it’s good to keep clean things clean.’
‘You said it was okay for things to get dirty.’
‘Some things, yes, but not works of art.’
‘So we can enjoy them in their ideal state. So that other people can enjoy them. If we get a work of art that is very clean dirty, then it has to be cleaned again, and every time we clean it, a little bit of it gets worn down or disappears, and so we speed up its process of decay. This painting is in an almost ideal state. I acquired it – I bought it – new from a gallery. No one else has owned it but the artist herself. It is almost in its ideal state. It has never had to be cleaned. If we look after it, it will not have to be cleaned for a long time yet, and so we will make it last longer.’
‘But I want to touch it. I want to see what it feels like.’
This is a boy, I realize, who has never touched an oil painting, who has never possessed anything of value other than his clothes and shoes and a few small toys.
‘We’ll get a special one just for you.’
‘Yes. We’ll go today, to find a painting that you can touch.’
I tell Edward my plan and his eyes narrow, looking away from me in that English way he has of suggesting demurral, or deferral, I’m never sure which.
‘How much will you spend?’ he asks.
‘A thousand. Fifteen hundred.’
‘Not if I can help it,’ I say, ‘but that’s what I’m prepared to spend to secure the future of the painting I love. The alternative is to frame it, under glass, and have it securely bolted to the wall, and that would cost no less.’ I do not tell Edward, hardly tell myself, that I have dreamt of Romeo destroying it.
I take him to a junk shop that calls itself an Antiques Market. Sensing his skittishness, I squeeze his hand, smiling with my eyes, as my mother taught me, to reassure, to express genuine warmth, although I feel the mechanics of my own performance. All too human.
The owner of the Market, a woman in her sixties, has an inflated sense of the stuff she peddles, thinking it all priceless when it is, mostly, run-of-the-mill brown furniture and Victorian genre paintings that few people want. She watches every move my boy makes.
‘We’re looking for a painting for my son’s room,’ I tell her. ‘Something interesting, with character, with people in it.’
She leads us to the back of the shop and points to an antechamber full of paintings, some hanging, others stacked on the floor and leaning against the walls, many framed, a few not. I have in mind a classical scene, perhaps something with hunters, or even a family portrait. Romeo’s eyes dart up and down before he shakes his head. ‘It isn’t here.’
‘We haven’t looked properly,’ I say.
He dismisses pictures of horses and cows and dogs. He has no interest in a group portrait of one family’s seven children. Landscapes bore him. Classical ruins puzzle him. ‘Why make a painting of that?’ If it has a frame, he shows no interest. Near the back of the room, I find a curious eighteenth-century painting of three men: a white Englishman, his son, and the man’s African slave. I put it aside, but this is the one that Romeo notices.
‘We could maybe take this one,’ he says.
‘But here’s a nice tropical picture,’ I say, finding a French salon painting of a woman with large breasts and a flowing white gown reclining on a divan surrounded by Asian-looking attendants. There is even a monkey playing on the ground, reaching for a bauble.
‘No, this one,’ Romeo insists, touching the picture of the three men. His index finger taps at its surface, while his ring and middle fingers scoot back and forth, learning the texture of varnish and oil, the suggestion of soft tackiness that remains, even years after a painting is finished.
In the end I buy both. The woman wraps them in brown paper and ties them up with a rough brown cord. We take a taxi home.
‘It’s a very gloomy painting,’ Edward says, grimacing at the portrait of the three men, which now hangs above Romeo’s bed.
‘It’s not right,’ Romeo suddenly shouts, thrusting his fists to his side. I wonder if this is prompted by Edward’s skepticism.
‘But it’s the one you wanted, my boy,’ I remind him.
‘I want the other one!’ he screams.
I go to our bedroom and bring back the painting of the woman and the monkey and the Asian attendants. Louche, I think, a rather dubious painting for a little boy’s room.
‘No!’ Romeo screams again. ‘I want your painting. In there.’ He points towards the living room. I know which painting he wants. It is time for Edward to play his part, to say no, to make the refusal palatable, but this time Romeo will not be consoled and we spend the rest of the day and the evening listening as he sobs in his room.
In the middle of the night, I wake from a deep but troubled sleep, dream-ravaged, I say to myself. Something has woken me, but Edward remains asleep. We went to bed to the sound of Romeo’s cries slackening off. He refused to eat. He would not bathe. He went to bed in his day clothes. He screamed obscenities at us, worse than anything he said to George and Henry. For the first time in the past week, Edward looked shaken by the child’s behavior. He saw what I have had the privilege, or burden, of seeing on my own.
‘I don’t know,’ he said as we turned out the light. ‘Perhaps you were right.’
I expect to find Romeo in the living room, but notice the light from his bedroom. When I look through the open door I am stunned to find Interior: Monkeyboy hanging above his bed, in place of the eighteenth-century portrait of the three men. He must have swapped the paintings on his own, and then I notice that he is wearing his new pajama bottoms but no shirt and his body is covered in red streaks. At first I think he is bleeding, flayed, but then I see that on each of his arms there is only a red stripe of paint, watercolor, extending from his elbow to wrist, red stripes that imitate the red highlights on the arms of the boy in the painting. There is also an appendage, just above the waist of the pajamas at his back, a long thin tail, twisting slightly, that piece of rough brown cord from the Antiques Market, affixed to his skin with electrical tape.
For a moment we stand there, him looking at the picture, me looking at him from the hall. I hear the shushing of a bus and a siren’s drone, although the noise is scarcely audible through the closed windows and may only be in my mind. Perhaps sensing my presence, Romeo turns his head, offering me a three-quarter view. His eyes are dark and beady, like those of the boy in the painting, his chin set with confidence, willfulness. Alpha, as George said. An alpha male, my Romeo. I know what I must do.
‘Come here, my boy. We can dance if you like.’
‘Yes. I am going to teach you to tango.’
Artwork © Kate Gottgens, Interior: Monkeyboy, 2013