Art Pact 122
We found the boy in the middle of the shop, taking cans from the shelf and stacking them in geometric shapes on the floor. He looked tired, frowning in the way children do that lets you know they're going to be difficult to get to bed. A cart lay on its side a couple of metres away from him and we sat down on it, carefully putting our weight at the edges so that we wouldn't bend it and so that it wouldn't tip up suddenly if one of us got up in a hurry.
"What brought him here?" Don asked, looking around. For a moment I was astonished, then remembered that he'd never taken the boy shopping - not ordinary everyday shopping, anyway.
"His mum," I told him. "We'd see her here sometimes. Not - I didn't bring him here deliberately for that, but we had to get food somewhere. I wasn't driving to Slough just to avoid her, that would have been insane."
"Shit," he said quietly.
"How did he take it? I mean, seeing her?"
I shrugged. The truth was I had never been able to assign a single defining emotion to the expression I'd seen on his face when we saw his mother. Fear? Love? Awe? Hatred? Self-pity? I could have made a case for all of these feelings and more, but none of them would have expressed it correctly. No doubt somewhere in the world there was a language in which the exact emotion was elegantly summed up, but English was not that language. I'm not sure I could even have described my own emotions reasonably. Was I happy that he was still able to see her, or jealous? Time and absence do have a way of making the heart grow - perhaps not fonder, but certainly blinder. A mother he could never see could easily become a model of purity and rectitude, the ideal warm-hearted parent against whom Don and I would be judged and found wanting. He wouldn't have had to put up with quite as much at school if he'd stayed with her, that was obviously true.
"I didn't try to avoid her," I admitted. "I mean, I didn't want him to think that we were his gaolers, right? That's what we agreed about, what we'd do when he got older?"
"I just thought it would be easier on him in the long run, so that he didn't have any expectations that she couldn't fill. Perhaps I was trying to make it easier on her too."
"You've always been very kind," he said, stroking my shoulder.
"I didn't expect- I mean, if I'd known that-"
"There was no way of knowing," he reminded me. "It was just a stupid accident, like the stupid accidents that happen every day. If it hadn't been her it would have been something else, that's just how these things go."
"I know, but... I mean, it's hard to come to terms with for us, how bad is it for him?"
The boy's construction appeared to have slowed down, each new can being placed into position with greater and greater accuracy and longer deliberation. I tried to make some sense of the pattern, but it was nothing I could see. I could see Don turning his head one way and the other.
"Is it a picture?" he asked. I didn't know. "Perhaps it's something he did at school. You know, in those maths classes they've got him doing." I looked at him out of the corner of my eye - he paused carefully, wary of bringing up the cause of so many recent arguments. "Maybe we should, I mean - I know I've said this before..."
"I don't think this is anything to do with that," I said. "But... yes, that's- we could ask Lara what she thinks." It was as much concession as I was prepared to make out loud, but I saw his point. If this was something to do with the classes I didn't know whether it would be healthy to keep it going.
Don stood up carefully, reaching slowly into his jacket as if he were getting out a gun to surrender to a policeman. When his hand cleared the grey fabric again I could see that he was holding his phone. He held it over his head and I heard the fake shutter click sound. He showed me the picture - a forty-five degree shot of the picture the boy was making. The angle had been high enough to show that it wasn't just a random arrangement but a definite pattern, arms of varying length and width radiating in a loose spiral out from a central ellipse. It was familiar to me, and I could tell that Don was thinking the same thing.
"Not the maths class, then." he said. "I thought he'd stopped having those dreams?"
"He has," I said, but it was not until the words were out of my mouth that I heard what a defensive tone I had in my voice. Somewhere inside me I knew that I was lying - or rather, that I did not quite believe what I was saying. I'd gone into the boy's room in the morning and seen the faraway look on his face enough times to know that something was happening to him. He'd denied it, of course, and I'd let him deny it, but I knew at that point that it was nothing but sympathy and denial. He had still been having the space dreams, and he had learnt to lie about them so that he could avoid the awkward questions.
"Do you think it's something stress-related?" Don asked.
"Maybe. Look, I-"
"We should probably get him out of here," he interrupted me. I looked at the boy. He was holding a can of tomato and red pepper soup in his tiny hand, studying the pattern before him so intently that nothing else might have existed. As I watched, though, his eyes crinkled up and he yawned hugely so that we could see the brilliant white flashes of his teeth.
"I agree," I said.