BEHIND HIS SPECTACLES, THE BOY’S EYES WERE LIKE bevelled glass.
Alice Silverman turned in her chair and adjusted the window blind so that the late summer light fell muted into the room. All the surfaces— the pale wood table, the backs and arms of both chairs, the long low cabinet of shallow drawers— hummed with a shimmer of honeyed dust. Each drawer in the cabinet was marked clearly with the name of the child to whom it belonged; some, those of the youngest, had an animal brightly painted beside the handle, a dolphin, a diplodocus, a brown bear with outsize feet and a big red bow at its neck.
Close to Alice’s slim wrist rested the unlined pad on which, occasionally, she noted down words or phrases in a neat hand, or otherwise doodled, crosshatching dark corners that might be clouds or trees. Between herself and the boy there were sheets of unmarked paper, some coloured, some plain, and near them a wooden box filled with pencils, chalks, and crayons.
“There’s plenty of paper here,” Alice said. “You could draw something. Make me a picture.”
Barely a flicker of response in those eyes.
“It’s difficult, isn’t it?” Alice said. “Part of you wants to, but part of you doesn’t.”
She had asked him before, not asked him, chivvied him, told him. Needing a response. Something she could push against. Not wanting him to be too comfortable. None of those namby-pamby social-worker questions— What had he done in the holidays? What was his favourite group, the Beatles or the Stones?
Alice looked at him and the boy shuffled awkwardly on his chair until he was sitting almost sideways, head down, face angled away.
The Stones, she thought, it had to be. For her, at least. The words to “Mother’s Little Helper” running through her head. The thrust of Jagger’s skinny hips, the cruel lewdness of his lips.
A shiver ran through her and she sensed the boy stiffen as if somehow he had noticed.
THE REFERRAL HAD COME FROM THE BOY’S TEACHER INItially, not based on any one particular thing, more an accumulation of incidents that had alerted her to some underlying malaise that went beyond the norm. Sudden mood swings, outbursts of temper, tears; several occasions on which he’d soiled himself in the playground, or once, in class, an incident, quite possibly misinterpreted, between himself and the school secretary when they had been alone in her office, something vaguely sexual.
Alice had read the reports, hummed and hawed, finally found a place in her schedule. Almost five years now since she had finished her training, three since taking up her post with this authority. The younger children, seven, eight, nine, she felt less anxious with, more in control. Boys like this, though, edging eleven, slightly built but with something threatening about them nevertheless, something confrontational beating just beneath the skin . . .
Sensing the allotted time drawing to a close, Alice allowed herself to glance down at her watch; capped and uncapped her pen, then told herself not to fidget. A cup of tea and a biscuit: two more sessions and then she was through. Another day. Tonight there was a Buñuel at the Film Society. Viridiana. Maybe she’d go along, take her mind off work, relax.
“All right then,” Alice said, as brightly as she could. “I’ll see you again next week.”
Copyright © John Harvey 2006
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