“It’s a static zoo,” I joke and she smiles tightly, one of her patent smiles that comes with an inwards eye roll and two or three resentful thoughts as standard. I push my nose up against a glass cabinet full of stuffed hummingbirds.
“You’re dead and I’m not, ha-ha,” I sing at them. Their wings are spread wide as if escape is imminent, and I will them to break free and fly into my eyes. That might give this day some meaning.
“Imagine positioning them like this?” I say, but she isn’t listening. She is distracted by the general hubbub of the museum. Her eyes are darting from heavily bonneted actors giving talks about moth collecting to groups of European teenagers shoving each other with their backpacks. The private jokes of the young, and cultured.
“Imagine if that was your job,” I say jabbing my finger on the glass, attempting to coax her into my way of thinking. But she shrugs, so I push the hair out of her eyes. I hate it when she looks so unkempt. I take her too square face in my hands and push my lips into her cheek and she says, “imagine.”
She wasn’t quite with me today. She had worries about money and blinds and footwear and they had overtaken her. This trip was meant to distract her. We were meant to be filling her brain with the comfort of history and facts and art, piling them on top of each other in a bid to show the continuous wonder of creativity and the never-ending circle of life, but instead we had spent all day quarrelling over the future.
“C’mon,” I say taking her hand and leading her into a smaller corridor filled with dead land mammals. They felt more sentimental than the birds, conveying more meaning with their large glassy eyes and shiny coats. That fox had really wanted to live and although that Red Panda had harbored a secret death wish, it felt regret all the same at the sound of the trigger click. We navigate our way through a sea of school children in mauve jumpers, and although I try to avoid the discordant flow of limbs and clipboards a blonde girl walks straight into my shin. Her hasty sorry produces a paternal response in me but makes my partner scowl.
I squeeze her hand and we follow the hall out into the larger entrance area.
“You would love one of them wouldn’t you?” She says pointing at the walking, running, laughing and ambling school children in their pick and mix uniform. We had tried to leave this argument at the foot of the bed this morning, but it had hitched a ride underneath the car. We were back to the sticking point of that postcard image I had lodged in my head, my watercolor image of a nuclear family but done right this time. I shrug and pull my hand away.
“You would love one of them,” she repeats, more aggressively this time, pointing at three boys scribbling down the name of a giant dinosaur, sounding out the letters phonetically in a bid to get it right.
I say nothing. She was cruelest when her brain was filled with admin. I follow her to a museum malaise bench and we sit side by side waiting for the inevitable argument. Why did I walk into a trap I could see? She had covered the hole in the forest with rotting leaves yet I happily step right through them.
“Forgive me for wanting to have a child with you,” I say.
“They aren’t like your plants,” she says facing away from me, her hand supporting her chin and her fingers covering her mouth. The European children are weary because their backpacks are full of postcards and books and jumpers and they sit on the floor at the foot of the dinosaur. A security guard encourages them to stand up, but they just laugh at him and his silly life.
“I know a child is harder to look after then a plant,” I say.
I initially started the collection because of the perfect window ledge in our new home, (long, wide and caught in a suntrap,) but with all these circular arguments it had become a matter of pride. I wanted to show her I could keep something alive.
“Do you?” She says and her teeth are nibbling the skin around her nails again. I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. I don’t understand. Why am I being punished for thinking myself responsible? I look at my face in the mirror. I don’t think my genes are too bad and I think hers are just great. Something that was equal to both of us would turn out okay as long as it didn’t get my ears or her feet, my nose or her hair. If it got my fathers ears, her face and my head for math we would be laughing.
I come back and she is standing outside the toilet holding a dark haired boy in a grey school uniform by the hand.
“What are you doing?” I ask her.
“Prove yourself,” she offers.
We are facing off outside the toilets and the faint smell of urine coats our exchange.
I ignore her and kneel down to talk to the boy. He has large green eyes, a layer of crusty yellow snot coating his right nostril and a blue congealed comfort blanket in his left hand. He couldn’t have been more then ten and he viewed me with unreadable flatness.
“What’s your name?” I ask as gently as possible, as though I was not on show and this was not the beginning of some unorthodox test.
“Jack,” he replies and something green is clinging to his front left tooth. I detect a northern accent of Yorkshire origin. His school has traveled far.
“And where’s your teacher?” I ask and he shrugs. He doesn’t seem scared, in fact he seems pretty contend to cling limply onto the hand of my beguiling fiancé. He seems like one of those children who just happy to be directed and will always follow the crowd. I wonder if he is too naive for this world.
But what if my child were like that? Would I simply throw him to the wolves or would I show him how to get on? I know I would. I hope I would.
“We’ll help you find her,” I promise grabbing his left hand, damp with saliva as it clings to the comfort blanket. He says nothing in response but I’m sure I feel him squeeze my fingers.
She grabs my jumper and encourages me to stand up.
“He says has to be back in the main entrance by five. He was just wondering around on his own to begin with. No one even noticed he was lost.”
I look at him and he looks at me, and then he looks at his feet, and then he sticks one finger into his nostril and I look at her.
“Prove to me you can be a father,” she says.
We have half an hour to pretend to be parents. We decide to head to an interactive section of the museum because we both agree that the other exhibitions might be a tad “too dry,” for a child like Jack.
We hold Jack by each hand and I ask him about his life.
“What’s your favorite subject at school Jack? What do you like doing Jack? Who is your best friend Jack?” Jack does not respond readily to these and mutters what sound like noises, but could be answers. He seems more entranced with the general positioning of things. He is enamored with the sights around him, the curve of a banister and the tiles on the floor. I ask him to speak up and my girlfriend gives me a look, so I ruffle his hair and tell him it’s okay to be a bit quiet.
“Can I call you Connor, Jack?” I ask, and he shrugs.
“I suppose,” he says.
“That is the name I have chosen,” I say to my girlfriend who smiles wryly. She is having fun now, I can tell. She displays emotions on her forehead, and it is smooth and hopeful.
We pass a display on the human body, a section on the healing process with cartoon scabs knitting themselves around a wounded knee. Connor fingers the raised blood cells and I lean over and explain how the body fixes itself. He continues to prod the blood cells, his fingers circling the membrane and tapping the nucleus. It is oddly hypnotic and I wonder how we look to other people. Do we look like teachers or parents or both? Isn’t that what parents are meant to be?
We drift on for a while with no plan in mind, and I tell my fiancé that we should see what he wants to do.
“It will be good for him to make his own decisions,” I say and we pass a light up interactive game in a section entitled “memory.” He immediately lets go of both our hands, drops the comfort blanket he has dangling out of his mouth and runs over to those illuminated squares. My fiancé and I stand back and watch him try to imitate a sequence.
“Maybe he is a genius?” I say, thinking that would explain his quiet behavior.
“He isn’t autistic.” She responds. I lean over and kiss her, full on the lips, my hands grasping her back, bringing her to me. We are lost in each other’s mouths when we hear a girlish scream of terror.
We look over and Jack is standing next to a girl of similar age but much larger build. She is clutching her fleshy hand to her eye socket and howling in pain. Jack is standing motionless, looking at her in fascination. We can see what has unfolded here, and we look at each ready to accuse the other of neglect. A whirlwind of people begin to gather around them. The concerned mother, whose slim shape tells me she comfort feeds her daughter to keep herself trim. A security guard who urges the girl to withdraw her hand from her eye. A father who hoists his toddler into his arms and insists he is a doctor. Jack stands motionless, this mouth forming an O shape and then he begins to cry.
“She was trying to play, but it wasn’t her turn,” he says as they press something cold to her eye to try and staunch some of the bleeding. He turns to find us, his adopted parents, but we are gone.