The child came to the clinic each week to see Anna Oblotsky, the social worker. His world was a kaleidoscope of conflicting images of his mother: times when she lay in the wide bed and he would burrow into her warm flesh, intoxicated by the rich smell of lust and perfume, other times when she changed, due to a particular badness in him, he fancied, or perhaps it was that she told him it was his wickedness which transformed her. Then she became all bone and sharp angles, flashing eyes and scolding voice, and he would shrivel to nothing. Light as a drift of ash from some conflagration, he would tumble to school on those days, existing suspended in a twilight place where vague images of power and glory jostled at his mind. Snatches of visions from fairy-tales or bible stories clamoured at him as he stood awkwardly on the fringes of the group of laughing teasing fighting children. A solitary child, he did not know how to join their games.
Anna Oblotsky was small and fair, with strange light blue eyes which looked as if the colour had been washed from them by too many years of seeing the misery of children. Her parents had escaped from Russia during the revolution and she was the child of their middle age born after the years of deprivation when they found peace at last, in a country at the far ends of the earth. The two children of their passionate youth, clutched in shaking arms as they fled across borders, or hid in some deserted shelter, had died, tragically drowned when the leaking boat in which they crossed the Yangtze Kiang sank under them. Stephan and Katya Oblotsky had been fortunate to escape with their own lives, dragged unconscious from the flood by bandits who coveted the gold chain around Katya’s neck. Anna Oblotsky devoted her life to the search for the lost souls of children, a task for which she had a rare gift.
‘Andrew MacPherson’, says the teacher that day, ‘Andrew MacPherson, stand up and tell the class what I have just said’. And the child, startled by the sound of his name, stumbles to his feet to be pilloried by the sixty eyes of his classmates who watch, delighted, as he blushes and stutters, a clown on a makeshift stage, dumb where words would have saved him. ‘Andrew, I do not think you have been listening to one word’, cries the teacher. ‘Not a single word!’ As from a great height, he sees himself, mumbling, shambling, head bowed, a miserable sinner. A trickle of water runs down to form around his feet, a steaming puddle, which winks at him in the sunlight.
‘Look! He’s wet his pants!’ comes a smug voice. Mary Rogers, always ready to patronise. Quick as a thought, he transforms himself into an eagle, and swooping down on her, beaks up a tuft of her hair. Surprised, Mary Rogers grasps at her ribbon and reties it. The teacher directs young Andrew to the bucket and mop and wonders if she should send him home or attempt to wash and dry him at school, if she does nothing, he will smell by the end of the day. Perhaps, she decides, that may teach him not to do such things in future. Such a strange silent child. So she continues the lesson, relieved to find that he follows her every word with rigid attention. She avoids, though, asking him further questions.
At the luncheon break, he stays in the classroom, for if he joins the other children, there will be taunting. There does not seem to be enough of him to pretend that he does not care. Very likely he may add to his shame by crying. In any case, something is swelling inside him. He thinks of the child who does not come any more. She had black plaits which she would throw over her shoulders when she was writing, and a dark mole in the centre of her forehead. What happened to her, he wonders. Maybe, she is dead. What can that be like? Could it be perhaps as he felt, becoming an eagle and swooping on Mary Rogers? Again, he flies up to watch as his body stands and moves stiffly to the desk of the missing girl. Empty . . . The teacher’s desk, nearby. Great with importance. The drawers slide easily. Yes, here there are many things. Books. Pencils. The rubber stamps for good work. A comb. A purse. Money . . . Notes and coins in his hand now. Walking with a firm step now. To the tuckshop. Buying packets and packets of sweets. The woman there, somebody’s mother, surprised, uncertain. ‘My birthday’, he says, quickly cunning. Then, giving them all, yes, distributing them all to each of his thirty classmates. A sudden popularity . . .
And so, in due course, he is sent to see Anna Oblotsky at the clinic.
His mother’s voice, shrill and penetrating. ‘How could you shame me like this? How could you shame me so? My child, a common thief! Delinquent, at your age! You are no child of mine . . . A changeling . . . Goblin child . . . Bewitched . . . Strange to me . . .’ And she will not speak to him. His cries and pleading echo through the rooms and hall and kitchen in a vast emptiness of silence. In vain he listens for a tinkle of response as he drops his stumbling words into the well of her displeasure. Unyielding, she lies alone in the wide bed, her back turned to him. ‘Do not expect me to feed you. I am not your mother.’ He beats his head against the walls of his room until he is dizzy with pain. ‘You are strange, strange, a stranger. . .’ He holds his breath, hoping to die, to suffocate, but the effort is too great. ‘. . . Strange to me.’ Desperate, he thrusts a hairpin into the electric socket, and something leaps out and seizes him with such violence that he drops it, shaking. ‘I am not your mother . . .’ He is defeated, destroyed. He crawls into bed and sleeps, clutching a pillow. A sleep deep as death, without dreams.
But the next morning his mother gets out of bed and takes him to the clinic to see Anna Oblotsky, and she goes herself for an interview with the doctor who listens and listens as she pours out her troubles: her husband away such a lot, an unhappy love affair, an orphan herself, poor woman. He told her nothing, she says to the child afterwards. No advice, no medicine. But she is calmer, and buys them both an ice-cream.
The room, Anna Oblotsky’s room, has its own glow, as if there is some power which comes from her as she sits, quiet, attentive, always attentive; even though he does not speak to her, ever; even though he does nothing at all there except to walk carefully across to seat himself gravely on the rug, always on the same spot. The first time he went there, drifting lightly beside his grim-faced mother, all he saw was that particular part of the rug; a milky blue hexagon, its edges defined by a balustrade of geometrical shapes. When he sat on it, meticulously tucking in his feet, the border contained his body exactly and the pattern which spread out from it became an avenue of sharp black trees which stretched across the floor to Anna Oblotsky’s chair. Her own special chair, huge and padded, which she had brought to the clinic herself. It became a relief to him to cross the rug and settle on the cool still patch of blue, and after a time he found the courage to look at her as she sat, quiet, attentive, always attentive. Always, she would greet him, ‘Hello, Andrew’, with a smile, and when the hour was over, would say, ‘Well, it’s time to go now, Andrew. I’ll see you next week’. Sometimes she would say, ‘This is your space, Andrew, here in this room, to do what you like,’ but she gave no sign that she expected him to do anything particularly, although there was a doll’s house and a sand-pit, and paints lay on the table. The hexagon was a shining lake, smooth and clear, where he floated miraculously, its boundaries a thicket of thorn bushes where he hid. From where he hides and peeps out at Anna Oblotsky. She does not seem to mind if he stares at her. She watches him with her mild milk-blue eyes, and waits.
Then comes a day when he notices the small gold square in the middle of his hexagon; when he sits in the very centre and forgets to tuck in his feet. The square is a fountain in the lake and he can feel the water humming up through the core of his body, thrusting up through his head to splash in the sunlight. Cautiously, he sweeps up his arms to trace the parabola of the falling spray. Anna Oblotsky gives a little sigh of relief. This frozen child, who has for so long come into her room like a mechanical doll, who has sat so precisely all these months on the blue medallion, unmoving as a forgotten toy, is at last finding his own life. Never before has she seen him act with such grace, his hand fluttering through the air with the joyousness of a freed bird. He hears her sigh. He looks at her, startled. But she smiles. She nods. ‘That is a beautiful shape’, she says. And the avenue which stretches between them becomes wider, becomes bordered with roses; flowers thrust out between the sharp thorns, the scent of blossom fills the air, and he stands up; he swings his arms higher, and wider, wider. He is the fountain itself, sparkling, dancing, cavorting in the sunlight. Sprays and plumes of shining water fly from his hands, wreaths of foam spin about his head, as he steps on to the rose-bordered path towards Anna Oblotsky, who rises from her chair for the first time; who is standing now, too, smiling at him. ‘Let’s play a game with water’, says Andrew MacPherson.