In the one-bed room the boy sat quietly watching as his mother readied herself, watching with the quiet alertness of a suspicious animal that is not yet sure whether the rustling in the bushes is merely the wind or the approach of a genuine threat. She pulled on a dress, put jewels in her ears and made up her face; when she turned away from the mirror and sat down on the edge of the bed to slip on her heeled shoes the boy realised for the first time that women are not one, but many, depending on the circumstances, that women have a multitude of faces and bodies to choose from and that the choice is somehow related to the person who is going to be doing the looking.
The face and body he saw before him were brighter and more colourful and approachable than usual. Looking at his mother he felt a kind of yearning, a new and painful yearning, to touch and taste, and he experienced a strange embarrassment as though he knew that this yearning was inappropriate somehow. Yet still he made a mental note to himself to investigate, once she had left the room, the two boxes she had used to create herself, the two boxes on the bed, one of light and gold and one of colour and sweet-smelling scent. He knew that she had to leave, he even wanted her to, not only because she had put on shoes, but because the room suffered by her presence; it looked drabber, sadder, even smaller. Suddenly, he felt oppressed by the room, by himself.
You look nice, mummy, he said, in an effort to cut through the atmosphere, to claw his way out.
A warm red-lipped smile spread across her face, like blood on a white bathroom tile.
The heavy air pressed down on him.
Aren’t you the little gentleman? she said.
Still sitting on the bed she repeatedly touched her hair with her slender web-spinning fingers. To him her hair already looked more beautiful than it had ever done before, and he was afraid that she would spoil it. He wanted her to stop, to acknowledge her own achievement, the new standard; he knew himself, from his time spent drawing, that there is a point at which you must stop, a point at which you must call something complete or finished, even if it can never be complete or finished, because if you do not you will never be able to enjoy or appreciate it.
Yes, he said, for something to say.
And she laughed, tittered more like. It was a sound he had never heard before, a truly gay sound, coquettish even, although he wouldn’t have known that. She was proud, proud of herself; she was happy that her son had such a mother.
When the doorbell rang the boy realised that he had let his guard down, that he had been compromised by her new face and body, that the suspicion he had felt when she had started to get ready had been forgotten in the sight of her. The ringing of a bell or the knocking on a door had always made him anxious, as he knew that it boded no good, that there would be always something objectionable or upsetting behind it. Years later, as a young man, those same sounds would still produce the same feelings, the same anxiety, long after he needed to worry about who was making them and for what purpose or to what end. His mother, as far as he had understood it, felt the way that he did about the door, and yet upon hearing the bell this time she jumped off the bed and with nervous-excited intensity touched her hair two or three more times and walked briskly out of the room.
The boy imagined that it was the last he would ever see of his mother. Her demeanour, he thought, had an air of emancipation. Yet she promptly returned, bringing with her a broad, deep man, with dark and tightly-curled action-man hair and unnaturally tanned skin. His name she shot at him happily, loudly, as she theatrically burst into the room, as one might burst into song. Graham. The man smiled his tanned teeth, and held up a hand, palm forward, which, although he knew it was intended as a greeting, struck the boy as more like a sign to keep away. He knew that he ought to return the greeting, but could not; he could not move, even if he had really wanted to. Then the still-excited mother nudged the man, who immediately, as though they – the man, his mother – were part of the same mechanism, like the extravagant automotive display of an expensive Swiss clock, raised his arm to offer the boy what he held in his hand. The boy, who felt strongly that he was not part of the mechanism that moved the man and his mother, remained absolutely still.
Take it, his mother said, directing the boy towards the object in the man’s hand with her gaze.
The boy was still.
The mother rolled her head; giddy, lacking control, as though she were drunk, almost.
She took the object from the man’s hand and passed it to the boy. It was thin and square and wrapped in a cheap blue plastic bag. He opened it. Inside was a green waterpistol in a plastic and cardboard casing. The boy looked at it and looked at his mother and the man and couldn’t help thinking that he was involved in some kind of trade, as though the waterpistol was being given to him in exchange for his mother.