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.

‘A painting.’

‘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.’

‘What’s turpatine?’

‘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.

Potted Meat